The nit-picking interviews that many of us will have to endure when we fly the university nest are nothing compared to the scrutiny students undergo in the race for sabbatical posts in the Students’ Union. The two-week campaigning process is a daunting task for many, especially considering it’s an achievement to actually persuade the student body to vote, let alone vote for you.
With a low turnout at Hustings each year, posters are the only medium to communicate with voters, and it quickly becomes a competition of who has the best Microsoft Publisher skills. Self –advertising is not an easy task and when it goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong. Notable failures from last year’s elections include Iain Lindley’s campaign for SU President; his dramatic pleas on his poster to “Vote for the Best” weren’t fooling anyone and he dug an even bigger hole for himself with the proud boast that he was a Tory.
Students are, however, a difficult crowd to please and it seems that they didn’t want a politically neutral candidate either. Ed Harris’ campaign for President flopped with his claim that he had no political affiliations and that he was “someone who doesn’t care about student politics.” Not even his hands-in-pockets photo convinced anyone that he was more approachable and friendly than the next candidate.
So what exactly does appeal to the firing squad of student voters?
The publicity of last year’s winners reveal some interesting truths about why students voted for them and demonstrate the tried-and-tested methods that can help avoid potential blunders.
James Alexander’s election campaign reveals the effectiveness of a gimmick. Alexander modelled himself on one of the quirky scouser characters from the 118 adverts, which was an immediate hit with the student population. During his campaign, Alexander was not seen in a club without his 118 vest (a rather unfortunate sight for many) and this seems to have increased his popularity on campus. Aaron Cartwright, who voted for Alexander, explained that “he stood out from the other candidates. They were basically nobodies and people want to know who they’re voting for.”
Alexander’s tactics seem to have sparked a growing trend in this year’s publicity. A.J. Ramesh and Louise Pike, who were recently voted in as Vice-Chairs of Halifax JCRC, based their campaign on the hit film The Incredibles. Ramesh explained: “We wanted something that people would notice, something comic and funny so we decided to create a mocked-up version of The Incredibles film poster. Whether people voted was an added bonus but we just wanted people to sit up and take notice of our campaign.”
Similarly, this year’s SU elections have a couple of quirky posters from candidates. The two groups running for the non-sabbatical post of Societies Officer, both use gimmicks intended to appeal to students. Noel Davis and Helen Edge have drawn cartoons of themselves as super heroes on their posters, which they explain “stands out from just being a photo of ourselves and is a bit of light-hearted fun next to serious policies.” Carl Nuttall and Adam Stevenson have also designed eye-catching posters, portraying themselves as Laurel and Hardy style characters.
However, Services Officer, Verity Radley, managed to soundly defeat her opponent Tom Dyson despite his eccentric campaign with a Dyson vacuum cleaner. This demonstrates that, whilst a gimmick can complement publicity, it can’t carry it on its own. Radley, instead, focused on her previous experience, which included her roles as the Chair of Halifax JCRC, Ents Assistant and work on big campus events such as Battle of the Bands. This helped to present her as an extremely capable candidate – a quality that voters were obviously looking for. The successful Athletics Union President, Stuart Leslie, also used his experience as a dominant factor in his campaign, listing it in the centre of his poster to instantly grab student’s attention.
Alexander agrees that a gimmick is not enough and explained that he was also successful because of the policies he presented: “I promised things that students actually wanted and then did it” Alexander’s promises included the establishment of the York Medical School, and continuing the campaign against tuition fees.
There is, however, a noticeable omission of Alexander’s most controversial policy from his poster. The Students’ Union Media Charter, which he imposed at the beginning of his year in office, was widely opposed by media societies and would have no doubt caused a drop in votes if he included this in his campaign. Thus, in true machiavellian style, Alexander only revealed the policies that would be readily accepted by students and then unleashed the unpopular ones once he had gained power.
On the same note, some of this year’s candidates are campaigning to reverse the Charter. Clearly mistakes of the past are a prime target for hopeful candidates who recognise that campaigning for reform could be significant vote winner. John Rose, the winning Welfare Officer in last year’s elections, explained: “With Welfare, to win the election you have to put it out as if there’s been weaknesses in certain policies before.”
Rose ensured that he appeared as “very approachable” in his publicity. He commented that this was important because of the nature of the position he was running for. Tom Greenwood, a college Welfare Rep, agreed that this was important: “we friendly welfare blokes highly advocate friendliness in all its forms.”
Uncontested posts allow candidates to be a bit more relaxed in their publicity. RAG President, Mary Gaunt, and YSCA Officer, Craig Savage, had no competition last year and, as a result, had significantly less information on their posters than candidates running for contested posts. Gaunt and Savage simply highlighted key points about their experience and policies on their posters and kept the overall design quite simple. Nonetheless, both avoided the humiliating consequences of losing to R.O.N. by demonstrating their passion for the job. Savage’s poster states: “Simply, I feel passionately for the Student Action organisation and its ability to enrich the lives of York students.”
The winners of last year’s elections all proved the power of publicity in their campaign for the top jobs. Posters need to persuade us why a particular candidate is worth voting for above all others, and why, of course, it is worth taking the time out to vote in the first place. However, students are not easily fooled and no matter how zany and original a campaign is, most will only vote for the candidates with the policies and experience to match. This may prove a difficult task for election hopefuls, but it is immensely entertaining for those of us with the deciding vote.