Mass democracy: two views

During 1969-70, under Mike Smith’s editorship, each issue of Guild Gazette featured a page entitled ‘Perspective’, on which were presented two opposing views on a current issue.  On 27 January 1970 Perspective allowed Sandy Macmillan and Pete Cresswell to debate the issue that had become central to Guild politics: governance by mass meetings or by Guild Council?

Always a minority

by Sandy Macmillan

Last term we saw in Liverpool a series of events that could only be called confusing. I do not wish to make any comment on the events of the term as they are mentioned both factually and with comment elsewhere.

To many people the issue would appear to be Mass Meetings or to some the structure commission and the composition of the student side of that committee. The problem has to me always centred round the word ‘democracy’. This concept has as many interpretations as there are people and to find a genuine and workable system has always been the aim. The results have rarely livcd up to this.

One of the major factors that affect the concept of democracy in a given environment is the scale on which the concept is applied. It would at first sight be very easy for a group of say ten people to make common decisions having discussed all relevant facts and made rules for their own conduct in say a flat. This would be described as a democratic system where all the members of the flat were involved in making decisions which affected their environment. With a small group, discussion and information flows very easily and there is a participation to a more or less equal extent by all concerned.

The reason I say more or less is that each person may have differing expertise, eg. if a problem came up over the lease and the occupant was a lawyer he would be in a better position to help than someone with no knowledge of the law.

If we now increase the group to the size of the Union, ie. 6000 members, the size limitation becomes critical. Here opinion will differ widely on the nature and form of the democratic system to be used. As it would be difficult to find any common ground for all  the members, there will always be a minority who will suffer as a result of a decision of the majority. This is clearly an accepted principle which we expect to meet throughout life.

lf we closely examine the criteria for a democracy involving 6000 people, several problems become apparent. If all 6000 are to be informed and consulted and make the decisions a great deal of time will be taken to arrive at any given decision. Here too, is the problem of educating each member until he has acquired the same degree of knowledge and expertise as his fellows. Clearly some people will not wish to spend a great deal of time on this and the decision-making process must be modified.

The two ways the decision-making process works are various. In the University Union they are:

  1. Representative Council
  2. Mass Meeting

In the former, Councillors are elected to perform the job of evaluating the opinion of their electorate and to contribute this opinion to the council. This contribution is in the form of a vote. Here the ratio is one councillor per hundred members. This would appear to ensure that all the members have been represented in the final decision.

The mass meeting argument as I have heard it would appear to believe that only those who turn up may vote and that the vote is binding on all members. An interesting legal point can be made here. If a Representative Council makes a wrong decision in, say, finance then each member can become personally liable for the sum concerned. This obviously protects the membership against any abuse of funds.

If a mass meeting were to make the same wrong decision, unlike the council where the councillors are known and accounted for,  the finance would have to be met by a levy on all the membership which, of course,  is no safeguard for the member.

In conclusion it might be interesting to note that throughout their histories, University unions have been testing modifications to the decision-making process between representation and Mass Meetings almost continuously.

At this time however the membership has expressed a view via the referendum that it wishes Guild Council to remain.

‘Break the circle of ignorance before we can progress’

by Peter Cresswell

For almost two years now, the issues of mass meetings and participatory democracy have dominated Guild politics. Yet today the problems seem no nearer to a solution than when the first campaign started. We are faced with the apparent contradiction of the majority of Guild Council having no faith in the President, the executive or the representative system, while the majority of students are in favour of retaining council, or at least highly suspicious of mass meetings. How has this curious situation arisen, and how can we a way out of it?

The precise reasons for the dichotomy are diverse but the basis of them all is a hopeless lack of communication. Guild councillors have failed to explain to their ‘A’ societies the chaotic and farcical collapse of the council system; Gazette has failed to analyse council’s failings; those desiring change have failed to clarify their alternative proposals to the mass of students. As a result students have watched the disintegration with a mixture of amusement and suspicion – with no respect for the established bureaucrats, but no faith in a new system which would give them the chance to make their own decisions.

The system prevents communication, and this in turn prevents any change. We must break this vicious circle of ignorance before we can hope to progress. Last term’s referendum result reflected a collective state of mind resulting from the stultifying influence of the council system and this is the best reason we have for continuing the movement to abolish that system. In no sense can it be acclaimed by right-wingers as a reason for ending the campaign.

Only a genuine system of mass democracy can dispel apathy and ignorance, precluding any muddled notions of combining mass meetings with Guild council. Unless people know that by attending mass meetings they are actually going to have the power to make decisions they will never participate. Indeed, without power, participation is impossible, and if students are simply supposed to ratify or refer back council decisions they will quickly realise that they are being offered a sop instead of the real thing. We must carry on trying to show this to the students. They are being fooled by the bureaucrats’ claim that council represents them adequately.

Perhaps Guild council could run the union building efficiently if it was organised properly, but so could a couple of full time administrators. The point is that there is a great deal more to student politics than bureaucratic details about union management. Students cannot separate themselves from what is going on around them any more than the university can, and we will never understand anything if we arc content to let other people make decisions on our behalf, and are prepared to accept the crazy idea that Guild should have nothing to do with politics.

The campaign for involvement and democracy must be stepped up. We must press not only for sovereign mass meetings but for democratic executive elections and the final extinction of the splendid isolation of the student from the rest of the world.


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