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NUS Referendum: Fair or Farce?

Nov 20 2006 18:09
Ashley Brown
Two weeks of complaints, an impounded publication and a sour taste in the mouth. Was the referendum fair, or just a farce?
James Fok has a "discussion" with a penguin who called him lazy

Imperial College Union is now all but committed to spending £35,000 on NUS affiliation this year, after a fortnight of campaigning filled with complaints, claims and counter-claims boiled down to the opinions of just 130 people. The leaders of both campaign teams have signed forms to say that the referendum was fair, but some students in the bar on Friday expressed concerns. The returning officer did the best job he could, but at times it seemed like a whole army was required to keep it under control, not just one sabb.

David Crow's article criticising the Glasgow referendum has attracted a degree of consternation, but how did it compare to our own?


At the low end of the scale, complaints during Imperial's referendum were lodged about the positioning of posters - they are required to be 6m apart when in line of sight of each other and only one is allowed per post on the walkway. At one point both sides were complaining about their posters disappearing, which it later transpired was due to College cleaners taking them down.

The 'Yes' campaign kicked off the first major complaint of the referendum, with an upheld complaint about bias in one of Stephen Brown's Felix editorials. Brown's article was deemed to be openly biased as it listed him as "Felix Comment Editor". The student media are not able to take sides in any form of election so a retraction was printed in the next issue.

The 'No' campaign was accused of a conspiracy upon the publication of Guildsheet, City & Guilds College Union's monthly magazine. The editor, Tristan Sherliker, was approached by the 'No campaign and asked to run advert. The 'Yes' campaign made no such request however were not contacted to ask if they would like an advert as well, leading Guildsheet to be impounded until voting closed. Sherliker is rarely seen in the Guilds office and Guildsheet is edited in Beit Hall this year, however CGCU President and 'No' campaign leader James Fok was deemed to have had an advantage by knowing that Guildsheet was publishing a month after the previous issue.

The 'Yes' campaign also came under fire, as they had access to the list of email addresses who signed the petition calling for a referendum. They were able to send out emails to those 617 people inviting them to vote 'Yes'. The 'No' campaign did not have access to the email list and expressed their concern about the situation. Those who signed the petition were deemed to be part of the 'Yes' campaign, so it was acceptable for them to be emailed - members of the 'No' campaign who had signed the petition were removed from the list before the email was sent out.

Confidential information

Around a month before the referendum the Union became aware of a potential hole in the finances. Although NUS affiliation fees will be coming from the money freed by disaffiliating from ULU, the full amount does not become available for several years. The Union will need need to find up to £50k over the next few years to cover the shortfall, however plans are well under way to ensure this does not affect club budgets. This information was considered 'commercially sensitive', so the Sabbatical Officers were required to keep it confidential. It was only through repeated requests and turning up at Mr Collins' door that Live! and Felix were able to obtain the information a few days before voting opened.

Highly Charged Debate

The campaigning fortnight started as it meant to go on, with a disorderly hustings in an RCC meeting seeing people shouting over each other. Many on the 'Yes' and 'No' sides were seen getting over-excited during the highly-charged campaign, however Jon Matthews was able to bring this under control once his voice recovered. James Fok was one of the last to shout during the week, as he rather comically got into an argument with a penguin on Upper Dalby Court. Mr Fok had just left a meeting in the blue cube, where he was representing his students, when the penguin shouted that the 'No' campaign was 'lazy' as he wasn't out campaigning but in the cube instead.


The referendum should have been an entertaining experience, with both sides able to present their views in a constructive manner. Unfortunately it degenerated into personal attacks at times, with a general level of chaos throughout. The returning officer was receiving complaints left, right and centre for the entire fortnight and external people were seen to be intimidating both 'No' campaigners and students who said they had voted 'No'. Something must clearly be done to prevent a repeat of this situation.

In any case we'll be joining, but with a hair's breadth between 'Yes' and 'No'. This is perhaps the best situation we could ask for - we have an opportunity to get first-hand experience of the NUS. Should it be positive, we can stay in. If it doesn't work for us, we can be back out very quickly indeed. As I said to NUS President Gemma Tumelty on Friday: we'll take part, we'll engage with the NUS. But we'll also be watching carefully. Very carefully indeed.

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Discussion about “NUS Referendum: Fair or Farce?”

The comments below are unmoderated submissions by Live! readers. The Editor accepts no liability for their content, nor for any offence caused by them. Any complaints should be directed to the Editor.
Nov 21 2006 09:40

Wait a minute. No! campaigners were removed from the referendum mailing list and the rest were counted as supporters of a yes vote? Thats a very serious accusation to make. If thats true then that calls into question the integrity of the result.

Nov 21 2006 09:45

People who signed the petition calling for a referendum were treated as seconders for the 'Yes' side. I was advised that people obviously on the 'No' side were removed from the list.

Nov 21 2006 09:49

"This information was considered 'commercially sensitive', so the Sabbatical Officers were required to keep it confidential. "

That's simply not true. I sat down with the Live! and Felix editors and talked them through the finances in detail in good time for them to be published in Felix. The financial figures were published on the front page of Felix two weeks ago.

If I had wanted to keep the finances quiet then I probably wouldn't have invited the Live! and Felix editors into my office and shown them all of the relevant spreadsheets and financial forecasts.

Nov 21 2006 10:00

When written up like that it seems to have been (by IC standards) farce-free. No appeals, no disqualifications (hard to disqualify someone in this campaign i know) and only some "minor" squabbling.

5. RON   
Nov 21 2006 12:40

"No appeals, no disqualifications"

Depends on the Returning officer being bothered to take any action in time!

Nov 21 2006 13:50

With all due respect, John, that is absolutely not what happened. Ashley Brown (Live! editor, for those not in the know) approached you a number of times (that I know of) to get the numbers from you, but didn't manage to obtain them.

It was only when myself and Ashley approached you together, and stood in your office and asked you numerous questions, did you actually open a spreadsheet containing the numbers. I never received a copy of the sheet afterwards, though I did ask you for one. Maybe Ashley did; I haven't spoken to him about it. I wrote the Felix story from memory, and to be honest, it was terrible.

We were not "invited" at all. We came to Beit Towers at least three times during the day, uninvited, and questioned both you and Jon Matthews for the numbers. Jon was reasonably helpful, or as helpful as Jon "it would not be appropriate to make a comment at this juncture" Matthews can be (our little joke).

And lastly, yes, the information was initially to be kept confidential, by your orders. The sabbs confirmed this to me.

John, be assured I have no interest in making you look bad or otherwise, merely reporting the truth. The truth is that Ashley and I were stonewalled when we approached you for the numbers.

Andy (Felix Editor)

Nov 21 2006 13:54

Oh, and I hardly had time to write the story, in the end, which is why it was badly written.

You told us the numbers on Wednesday evening after the 'harrassing', and I came in at 8am on Thursday morning (our print deadline is at 6pm) in order to get it done in time.

Nov 21 2006 14:11


I did not receive a single email from you requesting information about affiliation costs.

Ashley did email me. I was in the process of writing him a long letter when you both turned up at my door. Rather than finishing the letter, I chose to show you the spreadsheets there and then instead.

I have sent the letter to you and Ashley now (it's unfinished, but it contains the raw facts).

I don't recall offering to send you the spreadsheet. If I did and forgot, then I apologise. Usually if I promise to do something and forget to do it then I get reminded of my promise. I received no correspondance from you or Ashley regarding affiliation money following our meeting.

The important thing is that the affiliation costs were publicised by Felix and Live! so the electorate knew (roughly) what was at stake.

Nov 21 2006 14:40


Thanks for the letter, and what I said above stands.

10. Ben   
Nov 21 2006 17:32

This has to be one of the most pointless articles I have ever seen on Live! during my time at Imperial. But I think a few points need to be made:

Complaints: I know for a fact that at one point the NO team were bombarding the returning officer with complaints which were not upheld, so to suggest that somehow this was petty action by the YES (who complaints were largely upheld) is completely without merit.

Referendum List: The returning officer agreed that this list could be treated as a list of seconders. As such it was available to both sides (James Fok, the leader of the NO campaign, was present at the Exec meeting where this list was circulated). Members of the NO campaign were removed from the list simply to avoid spamming them - if they feel aggrieved at this I'm more than happy to forward the several hundred spam e-mails I receive each day to them.

Highly Charged Debate: Someone was called 'Lazy'. Wow. During the course of the campaign the YES team were referred to as Islamofacists, rapists, racists, 'unclassy', liars, self-serving and much more besides. I hardly think 'Lazy' is that much of an insult really.

Nov 21 2006 18:12


Complaints: I didn't suggest the complaints by the Yes campaign were petty. I also indicated that they were upheld, which would indicate that they were valid... Stephen Brown freely admitted the complaint against him was valid and none of them were appealed.

Referendum: I pointed out that No members were taken off precisely because if they weren't it would be considered spamming and probably break some rules. If the readers wish to make other interpretations then that is their right. The information I have is that the list was treated as supporters of a 'Yes' vote.

Highly Charged Debate: There was a lot of shouting going on on both sides. On Sunday I asked for replies on a number of issues. So far no-one has given me any hard facts as to who on the Yes side was called what, just that there was name-calling going on. Posts on Live! don't count, to the best of my knowledge none of the campaign team have called you any names on here. RCC hustings doesn't count either, as that was a farce of epic proportions and nobody came out of it looking good. Having said that, I think some of the external people were called liars for saying that the affiliation fee money was ringfenced and that College would take it away if we didn't join.

I haven't named any names except Fok, because (as I said) I thought him getting into an argument with a penguin was comical. There is also the irony of him representing his students in the blue cube when he was called lazy. It was also the only case I can recall where someone *external* has caused an argument.

Nov 21 2006 18:28

Why do our Sabbs waste their time on Live! during working hours?

Nov 21 2006 18:31

They have every right to reply to criticisms on here during working hours ... as long as they don't hit refresh every 5 minutes during the day.

Also, their core hours are 10am-4pm so Ben's post was outside their "working hours". They've all been working extra hard lately so have earned a break to whinge at me.

Nov 21 2006 19:27

"They've all been working extra hard lately so have earned a break"

You surely don't mean the referndum, which I understand was a participation they made outside of their normal duties.

Nov 22 2006 09:46

I would like to know a few things:

1. Who made the decision to allow the NUS on campus, and how do they justify this decision?

2. Was the affiliation fee actually ring-fenced? I heard this from various members of the yes campaign (and I believe I read it in various places in the student media), but it seems absurd.

Nov 22 2006 16:09

I would presume the referendum committee made the decision to allow the NUS on campus.

The affiliation fee was, as far as I know, not ring-fenced. Some of the external people on campus seem convinced that college would take away the money if we didn't affiliate and I don't believe that's true either.

Both points really call for a response from Jon Matthews as returning officer and DPFS, respectively.

Nov 23 2006 09:51

Could we also have some clarification from James Fok as to whether the list of names on the petition was available to the no campaign.

I was one of a number of people that signed the petition to see a democratic process and not as a supporter of the yes campaign.

Nov 23 2006 10:11

The list was in paper form that was presented at the ICU executive meeting. I was not made aware of the usability of the list and most certainly did not have an electronic copy that might or might not have been available to either the YES or NO campaign.

When I questioned that returning officer, he stated that I had equal right to the list. Had I not been at the exec meeting, how I would have know the existence of the list I do not know.

It is also pointed out to me that the list was typed up by Mr Matthews and Mr Harris on computer for ID check. This e-list was not given to the NO campaign at any stage and I was only made aware of the use of this list on Thursday morning.

Nov 23 2006 20:17

I am shocked to read that the list was supposedly available and yet the only people who seemed to know about this and thus the only ones allowed take advantage of the list were the Yes Campaign.

It makes the request to have Guildsheet impounded for reasons of "unfair access to media" look like a joke.

Did it also not occur to the Yes Campaign that people may have signed the petition to call for a democratic refurendum and not to state their support for the NUS?

Can we not disqualify the Yes Campaign on the grounds of Spam just like someone standing for election can be disqualified?

Furthermore, when's the earliest we can organise another refurendum to make the union independent from/revoke membership of the NUS?

I am going to shove that petition in Alex Guite's not-so-yellow-anymore face.

20. ???   
Nov 24 2006 00:42

Are you all so bitter and twisted?

I guess it because you are too busy making love to Linux to realise that you lost. You lost because students voted against the hacks.

Thank god for that.

Nov 24 2006 08:48

I can accept that some people are bitter and twisted. But to say that people voted against the hacks, when they voted WITH John Collins and Alex Guite - superhacks - is ridiculous. They also voted for all the NUS hacks who were around campus.

Far from voting against hacks, I would say they voted for them.

Nov 24 2006 10:01

I think it's quite telling that:

a) The yes vote pulled ahead after the personalised e-mail was sent, increasing turnout.

b) As the vote continued the yes vote continued to pull away from the no vote.

I conclude:

That a higher turnout meant a better result for the yes vote. Most hacks will have voted early. So most 'normal' 'random' students were voting yes.


Nov 25 2006 05:00

"Who made the decision to allow the NUS on campus, and how do they justify this decision?" That's the key question, as that's what decided the result.

24. Pan   
Nov 25 2006 11:43

To: ???

So, in your twisted little world,

Anti-NUS = Linux Geek

You sir, are a complete idiot.

25. n/a   
Nov 26 2006 15:22

Assuming that all seconders of a call to referendum are automatic supporters of the yes vote is like assuming everyone asking for a referendum on joining the Euro is supporting a single European currency for Britain.

If one team had direct (electronic) access to a database of students and their contact details, and the other did not, then the former team was at an unfair advantage. Having a significant proportion of a campaign's efforts impounded and hidden from view adds to that advantage.Together with the minute majority, this renders the entire referendum void in my eyes.

Frankly, taking the "yes" vote as binding and running with it, under the circumstances, is no different to putting George Bush in the White House in 2000: It's proof that cheating, deceit and dishonesty work, and that campus democracy is a farcical illusion. A victory to the NUS is a victory to corruption.

Nov 26 2006 15:54

The leaders of the "yes" and "no" camps have signed a contract stating that they agree that this referendum was conducted fairly. End of.

The "no" team lost because they spent all of their time writing comments on "facebook" and "Live!" whilst the "yes" team actually made an effort to talk to students.

Nov 26 2006 15:57

Not everyone was regarded as a supporter of the yes vote. Both Edmund Hunt and myself, active supporters of a No vote, were removed from the list following a discussion between the yes campaign and the returning officer.

Apparently this was so that we didn't receive any spam that we didn't want. How thoughtful of them? (sarcasm)

Unfortunately no matter how much we complain or how many reservations we have about dodgy campaign tactics involving mailing lists that we did not have access to, the yes vote is binding for now. Neither myself or the redoubtable Mr Fok are around next year so all this talk of us promising a disaffiliation petition is nonsence but if anyone who isn't graduating feels strongly enough about getting one together we would be more than happy to advise them. Whether or not we are going to see history repeat itself and see ICU vote to withdraw shortly after affiliating remains to be seen.

For now, A-NUS are being pragmatic and for the rest of the year we will be keeping a very watchful eye on issues surrounding our involvement with the NUS and most importantly, to ensure that the promises of the yes campaign are held. Last time I checked we were still missing the £35k for this years membership fee so I wish them all the best in their seach for it. I have said several times before, if the NUS could deliver what it promises it would be fantastic for ICU and I would happily eat my words. All the evidence suggests though that it is just going to be one very large, very expensive farce that is both a waste of our officers time and more importantly, our money.

Nov 26 2006 16:03

Sour grapes???

Please feel free to contact me to discuss the levels of effort the No campaign put in, including the amount of time we spent posting on live and facebook which, unless James and Ashley were particularly committed, would amout to an average of a few minutes per day. Im sure its very easy to criticise us from behind a pseudonym, but until you identify yourself you can't really expect to be taken seriously.

I look forward to hearing from you!

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See Also

  1. Glasgow NUS Referendum: Free and Fair?
    20 Nov 06 | Widening Participation
  2. Imperial to Join the NUS
    17 Nov 06 | News
  3. Turnout Breaks Records
    17 Nov 06 | News

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