Report on SU claims its strongest critics are opposed to “protecting minority voices”

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A report commissioned by Durham Students’ Union has claimed that the students most dissatisfied with the SU are opposed to “protecting minority voices and creating spaces in which they thrive”.

Concluding that “general trust levels [in the SU] are low” amongst students, the report found that only 26% of respondents agreed there is “room for debate and discourse at Durham SU”. Under half agreed that “students from all backgrounds are welcome” at the organisation.

Finding a positive correlation in survey responses between students satisfied with the SU and those supporting minority inclusion, it concluded there was “minimal support” of minority voices “among students who are dissatisfied with the SU for ensuring minority voices are heard in debates”.

The ‘Democracy Review’, which carried out and analysed a mass survey of Durham students as well as several focus groups, cost the SU £7,000 in a contract with private consultancy firm MiraGold. It follows a £2,000 “democracy health check” last summer carried out by the same
company.

This democracy review comes after elections were held last February for several positions, in which 58% of total votes cast were for Re-Open Nominations (RON). The SU subsequently decided to disqualify RON for campaign rules violations, and all these votes were subsequently
deleted, including second and third preferences.

During the election process, concerns were raised about the treatment of some candidates on social media. This prompted several representatives from a campaign supporting RON to sign a letter apologising “to everyone that has been made to feel unsafe and received abuse” as a result of the campaign.

The report suggests that the SU should “take comfort” that only a minority of respondents to their survey disagreed with minority inclusion. Around 5% disagreed that measures should be taken “to ensure that minority voices are heard in debates”, with the same proportion agreeing that “political institutions should make an effort to include people from a wide variety of backgrounds when they make a decision”.

Yash Raju, Durham People of Colour Association (DPOCA) Vice-President, told Palatinate, that the SU’s conclusions were “unsurprising, especially given the events of last year’s election and the conduct that was displayed by certain opponents of the SU.

“Obviously not to paint with broad strokes, but it’s clear that minority inclusion and safety was sacrificed for the sake of supposedly making a point about democracy.”

One student involved in the review took issue with the interpretation offered by the report, telling Palatinate: “while the data shows there was a fairly significant correlation between people who opposed minority spaces and voting RON, the reverse is not true; not all RON voters can be represented by this considering how many people said they did support minority spaces and voices in the SU”.

Around 40% of respondents chose to provide written feedback during the survey. According to the report, the majority of responses “were extremely negative experiences based on the disqualification of RON”, often raising concerns that the voting system used for the election “was
not properly utilised when RON was eliminated”.

Some expressed a “general lack of trust in anyone connected to the SU”, with others writing “strongly worded responses calling for the de-funding of the organisation”. A few students believed the RON campaign to be “intrinsically racist”.

“Obviously not to paint with broad strokes, but it’s clear that minority inclusion and safety was sacrificed for the sake of supposedly making a point about democracy.”

The report also found that “respondents who identified most strongly with their JCRs were more likely to support the protection of minority voices”, which it noted was as a positive step.

SU Assembly, the central student representative body, is strongly criticised in the report: “The dysfunction of Assembly is one of the reasons people feel so disconnected from the SU’s democracy […] its value is limited by a lack of understanding of its structure.

In a statement published on Durham SU’s website, Opportunities Officer, outlined some proposals from the democracy
review, including creating a “less binary voting system”, and formalising the role of students leaders within the SU, including Association Presidents and Chair of JCR President’s Committee. The statement makes no reference to last year’s SU elections.

Other suggestions from the report, which include a “complete overhaul of the communications strategy”, a “direct democracy model” and radical changes to Assembly, are expected to prompt significant changes before fresh student elections in late February.

A new “model of democracy” is then planned to be voted on in a campus-wide referendum in Easter Term.

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