If you want a functional Students’ Union, you won’t get one here.
The other day I got a text from my editor: ‘there’s a virtual Students’ Union Executive meeting, you should go check it out’. Naturally, I found myself rolling my eyes, but as a dutiful journalist who loves and respects his editor, I was intrigued to go to my first SU meeting. Despite my fantasies of the SU bureaucracy confined to a stuffy grey room, I found myself in an all too familiar position – logging into Zoom. I expected the meeting itself to be straightforward – the Chair would announce the agenda and the proposals would be unanimously confirmed by the rest of the Union Executive. Luckily for me, I didn’t have to sit through such a tedious affair. Instead, I had a front seat to a dramatic spectacle that introduced me to the frustrations of SU politics.
The meeting kicked off with a simple discussion about the minutes from the last meeting. But sooner than I, or anybody else, could have expected, it erupted over one issue – who would fill the empty seat on the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee oversees the budget of the SU and makes strategic decisions about where Students’ Union money, our money, is best placed. There are various members who sit on the committee, four of whom are students confirmed by the Union Executive. One such position still needed to be filled.
The Chair asked the floor if anyone would like to nominate themselves for the seat; only one person threw their hat into the ring: Thomas (Tom) Barringer. Tom is heavily involved in the ‘Stop Scabbing’ contingent of the Student Trustees, running unsuccessfully alongside Meg Day and Jenna Ali in October’s elections. He was openly critical of the Sabbatical officers in his campaign, even writing that “the sabbatical officers are lying to you through their teeth.”
Tom was asked by the Chair, Osman Teklies, the SU Union Affairs Officer, to give an impromptu minute-long speech about why he would be opportune for the role. While he clearly didn’t expect to give a speech, he nevertheless managed to string together a well-formulated expression of vision and interest. After he finished, all non-executive members were asked to leave so that a vote could be held on the issue. Here, it is important to note that all SU Executive discussions are supposed to be held in the open so they can be scrutinised.
Personally, as I had watched Tom give the best speech someone could possibly give on such short notice, I was sure that the Executive would vote him through with flying colours – not least because he was the only nominee. Instead, when all the non-executive members were invited back into the room, it became clear something had happened. The vote was a resounding no.
Tom was apoplectic at the news, striking out at the Sabbatical Officers for rejecting the only student who put himself up for the post. After the vote, there appeared two messages in the Zoom chat: ‘Good vote everyone’ and ‘Point proven.’ These fateful words were written by the Activities and Engagement Officer (and Outlook celebrity), Ilyas Benmouna, despite the fact there are not supposed to be any discussions while the SU Executive votes, just a vote. This suspicious oversight by Ilyas, probably written in arrogance and pride as he successfully blocked one of the few students remotely concerned with student affairs, soon became the main issue of the meeting.
As soon as Tom noticed the messages, he began to hound Ilyas, to no avail. What ensued was a shouting match between Tom and the majority of those present. Osman repeatedly asked Tom to stop shouting. In the middle of it all, Ilyas made a convenient announcement that he had to leave early to attend some pre-planned event and would therefore not be able to answer questions at the end with the rest of the Sabbatical Officers.
After the shouting match, Osman had Tom removed for being purposefully obstructive. Meanwhile, Ilyas slipped away, not to be seen again. This chaotic display exposes a huge problem with the Union Executive. First, their open discussion during the vote points towards an ostentatious disregard for SU rules and procedure. Further, Ilyas’ early departure and their dismissal of Tom implies an apathy to politically engaged students and a lack of transparency. Tom was unable to respond to any of the allegations made against him or dispute his rejection for the post, leaving the seat empty and limiting student representation on the committee.
Ultimately, Tom probably did have to be kicked out of the meeting – he was shouting over the Sabbatical Officers and the meeting could not continue. But I don’t blame him for his reaction. As the only candidate running, they failed to offer a valid reason for his rejection. Furthermore, amidst a dismal level of student participation in SU politics, his dismissal suggests that the Sabbs are more than content to keep students out of the Union. For my first meeting, I can’t say I wasn’t bored by the show, but I was disappointed by the actors’ performance.
Tom Barringer responded in familiarly animated language to this article, criticizing the “shameless gaggle of self-important bureaucrats that call themselves this year’s Sabbatical officers.” However, he was not despondent, citing the recent SU strike referendum as proof of “the power of the student body.” He also was optimistic about upcoming elections: “our team will dominate the Students’ Union executive elections this term.”
Osman and Ilyas did not respond to our request for comment.
By Samir Ismail (SU Correspondent)
This article appeared in CG Issue 81