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Review of the 2016 YUSU Election Candidates’ Debate

Photo credit: Bethany Lang
Photo credit: Bethany Lang
Photo credit: Bethany Lang

“Who needs a date when you can have a debate?” Well, I think a date would have been more preferable to some people. Sunday night’s Full Time Officers’ Debate had the passion and romance of a candlelit Valentine’s Day date at The Duchess in amongst a throng of clubbers. It was, by and large, a decidedly and deliberately lukewarm evening in which debate about prominent campus topics was noticeably shortened or stifled.

The candidates overall were polite and presented themselves positively, but stock phrases and ambiguities failed to keep the attention of the audience. Criticism of the current YUSU Sabbatical Officers was present but minimal, contrasting opinions were kept brief and the majority of conversation on social media, appearing on screen behind the candidates, was ignored.

The elephant in the room had to be campus freedom. Free speech, safe spaces, no-platforming and press regulation have been growing concerns on campus for months. NouseYork Vision and The Yorker arrived early to get front-row seats and cover the event. But more often than not, questions about free speech were answered only with statements from the candidates – spirited discussion was quashed.

I admit that no one was asking nor expecting to hear the candidates perform like Huxley and Wilberforce in the discussions. No one was after hour-long speeches dotted with the thunderous percussion of a fist against the podium. But could we not have had a little spice to the debate? A little more unrestrained discussion of the things that matter to students? Was that so difficult? Our ears perked up when free speech, a free press and no-platforming were up for debate; but just as contradictory views were expressed and the audience looked up from their phones, the chairwoman elected, in the name of free speech (make of that what you will), to move the debate swiftly on.

At times, the overarching control was evident. York Vision‘s team were brave enough to ask the forbidden question on the vote-of-no-confidence against Thomas Ron and how it had affected his campaign, but it was quickly cast aside by the chairwoman. The campus paper was shortly told to pipe down after asking too many questions, ironically when the panellists were discussing free speech and safe spaces on campus. Later the chairwoman added that, as an undergraduate sixteen years ago, she remembered York Vision as “a pain in the arse” – something York Vision seemed delighted to hear.

It was a shame that more time could not be spent debating. The candidates were all ready and willing to give honest, emphatic opinions about many of their policies and their approaches to campus life. One can see from the manifestos of many of the candidates how often particular themes, such as free speech, came up, that the students knew how important they were to the student body. (We all remember the online action that occurred over International Men’s Day…) Thomas Ron’s duel with Tamaki Laycock for the position of Academic Officer was one highlight of the night. In bursts of vitality and drive, ‘Tron’ showed his energy and determination to “finish what he started” and continue the journey he had began this time last year.

But, just as the newspaper commentators would race to their Twitter accounts and social media would explode with the news that there was actual, vocal disagreement on the panel about Issue X, everything would return to dreary normality and a new topic of conversation would be hastily entertained.

In between the lacklustre discussions on the stage, the audience had the pleasure of enjoying the wit and banter of notable Twitter users. Of particular note, in my opinion, were the stylish observations of Jack Richardson, Muse Editor of Nouse, who reminded us how ironic it was for YUSU to “play ‘Sex on Fire’ to hammer home that we’re all sitting here liveblogging sexlessly tonight.”

But humorous Twitter comments were not enough to remove the leash of calm tedium that was so evidently chained to the neck of the evening. With so much regulation, the evening was like a secondary school classroom debating competition. When the crowd got rowdy, the chairwoman threatened to put us all in a sort of detention by closing the Lounge bar unless we quietened down. Later on, the chairwoman addressed a group of students at the back of the room, saying that they hadn’t been listening to the speeches and, if they had nothing constructive to add, they should leave. Afterwards I gather that they wrote, “I will pay more attention to the student union elections,” one hundred times; their parents have been informed.

Still, we did get to see some of the candidates dance the Macarena. Student politics at its finest.

This review of the 2016 Full Time Officers’ Debate, including any endorsement or criticism of a particular candidate in the YUSU election, expresses the opinions of the author, not The Yorker.