Student union elections: Socialist Alternative fails to practice what it preaches

By James Crafti

“Socialists argue that, while the student union bureaucracy can’t simply be ignored, it’s far more important to involve the vast bulk of ordinary students in campaigns or demonstrations rather than concentrating on the factional manoeuvres that often take place within relatively small cliques within the student unions.” This good advice offered by Gerard Morel and Jeff Sparrow in Socialist Alternative #49 (March 2001) now appears to be being totally ignored by Socialist Alternative (and, to be fair, most of the student left) today.

While Socialist Alternative (SAlt) is involved in activities outside of election campaigning, its orientation to student union elections often results in feeding the cliquishness of student organisations rather than providing a genuine alternative. At La Trobe University, for example, while running a joint ticket with independent left leaning students, SAlt has stitched up a deal with Labor Party students under which the left is not running a candidate for welfare officer in exchange for the ALP not running a candidate for queer officer — all but guaranteeing the ALP the former position and SAlt the latter.

For several years now SAlt has run “feeder” tickets to improve its chances of getting elected. These are tickets that groups run in student union elections not with aim of getting the ticket elected, but with the aim of tricking students who won’t vote for the group’s ticket into voting for apparently independent tickets. As feeder tickets usually don’t get the votes required in a preferential or proportional election, the votes for the feeder ticket get “fed”, through preference allocations, back to the group’s ticket.

The Labor student factions have a cynical tendency to run feeder tickets under names such as “Vote for more beer” or “Vote for none of the above”. SAlt’s feeder tickets are only slightly better. While they present themselves under political headings such as “Make poverty history” and “Postgraduate students’ rights” (as it did in 2007), these are still cynical exercises in deceiving students. SAlt advocates the abolition of poverty through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. But the name “Make poverty history” was deliberately aimed at identifying the politics of this SAlt feeder ticket with the reformist campaign led by Bono and Bob Geldolf.

SAlt members are aware of the deception involved in their feeder tickets, which is one of the reasons they never campaign for them. In the 2007 La Trobe student union election, SAlt members campaigned for students to vote for their main ticket while using the 25 votes for their Make Poverty History feeder and the seven votes for their Postgraduate Students Rights feeder ticket to help them contend with the 53 votes for Labor’s More Beer feeder ticket. But even the name SAlt gave their main ticket last year — Action — was an attempt to hide SAlt’s politics, despite the fact that every candidate on the ticket was a member of SAlt.

With even an avowedly revolutionary socialist organisation practicing the same sort of electoral trickery as the careerist-oriented Labor students, no wonder student union elections have such low turnouts — La Trobe’s 6% participation being a normal figure for student elections nationally. The 19th century revolutionary socialist Frederick Engels argued that elections “accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardiness”. But the methods SAlt uses in student union elections offer no opportunity for socialists to accurately guage our strength among students, because their methods subordinate winning support for socialists’ politics to conning votes out of students.

While SAlt makes much rhetoric about its advocacy of “socialism from below”, denouncing overseas revolutionary socialists such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who have a mass base of millions of people, as practicing an allegedly bureaucratic “socialism from above”, SAlt’s members believe it’s okay to take elected positions on campuses here in Australia without winning the support of the majority of student voters. What hypocrisy!

[James Crafti is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party studying at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.]