Sunday, 14 March 2010

Lords, Vice-Chancellors, and Democracy

Why are we so willing to put up with such a lack of democracy in so many areas of our life?

Our political system is a democracy, but our society is far from democratic. Most people have very little power over most aspects of our lives. Three incidents from recent days have got me thinking about this.

Beckham's Green and Gold scarf

Manchester United's comfortable thrashing of AC Milan in the Champions League was somewhat eclipsed by their former captain's donning of a Green and Gold protest scarf after the match. It was great to hear, on the radio, the anti-Glazer chants in Old Trafford for the whole of the last half hour of the match. Fans at Old Trafford seem to be waiting until United are comfortably in the lead, then turning the game into a demonstration.

However, they have no recourse, no democratic method of removing the Glazers from ownership. The fans' best option currently seems to be the so-called Red Knights, a group of (rich) investors who have expressed an interest in the club. Portsmouth fans and staff have seen their club kicked around between rich owners for months, and now have to pay for the incompetence of others with relegation and job losses. The choice of one rich owner over another doesn't solve the problem.

Corpus Christi Protest

This week, students at Corpus Christi College staged a protest picnic against the college authorities' mismanagement. Students are having to bear the burden of increased costs in a college that is rumoured to be one of the wealthiest in town. Emphasis on the word “rumoured”, of course no college finances are transparent enough for us to know how rich they are, or exactly what it is they do with our money. For all we know, they could be bathing in it at weekends.

Corpus spent one million pounds on a stupid clock that doesn't even tell the time properly, as a gimmick to attract tourists. Perhaps there should have been a democratic decision to spend this money on something that would actually be useful?

Colleges lie about tiny things because they assume they can get away with it. The political memory of students is so short that they can safely misrepresent what the Kitchen Fixed Charge or cost of laundry was five years ago, in order to justify raising it. Student union reps on committees get fobbed off, lied to, or ignored. After a year they are frustrated enough to start getting pissed off, but then they have to step down in favour of some new, bright-eyed reps, who know that of course the college is an academic community and only wants what's best for its members.

The executive body of our university, the University Council, lacks even official Student Union, or staff union, representation. The university refuses to allow online voting, which would increase turnout. College JCRs are given the responsibility for running the ballot, which means that if they don't, there is no way for people to vote. There are three student representatives on a body of twenty-one, and no representation for non-academic staff. The heads of colleges and Professors could push through as many Golden Clocks as they like, and make everyone else pay for it.

Lord Adonis and the BA strikes

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has strongly condemned British Airways cabin crews' decision to take strike action. Let's leave aside for a second the condescending language which treats people like children (decisions to strike are always “unacceptable” and “irresponsible). Let's ask the question, in whose name is Adonis speaking?

The cabin crew have voted by 80% on a 77% turnout to take this strike action. Lord Adonis has been elected by 0% of anyone, on a 0% turnout. He was made a Lord so that he could sit in the cabinet. He has no democratic mandate whatsoever. He once won a ward in a town council election. For the Liberal Democrats. Twenty years ago. But he can go on TV and, with the full authority of an elected government, condemn a group of people who have made the collective, democratic decision to defend their working conditions.

Putting a cross in a box every year is no democracy, as long as the Lords, Vice-Chancellors and union busting bosses retain all the power.

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