SU candidates: a closer look

By Waseem Mohamed

Durham’s Students’ Union has released the manifestos of prospective candidates hoping to win a sabbatical role within the SU for the next academic year. This year’s elections will see a competitive Presidential battle with five candidates fighting for that role, but will also see three sabbatical positions go uncontested, with Re-Open Nominations (RON) the only dissenting option.

This year’s voting commenced on 23rd February and will continue until midday on 2nd March, when the results will be announced on the same day polls close. The SU will aim to avoid the controversies of the 2020 elections which saw RON (Re-Open Nominations) win the majority of votes before being disqualified for breeching election rules, which triggered criticism from students and forced the SU into a Democracy Review.

Presidential manifestos

The five candidates hoping to be the next SU President are Dan Lonsdale, Sophie Corcoran, Joseph McGarry, Aditya Lathar, and Declan Merrington. The winner will replace Seun Twins who comes to the end of her two year-term, and legal sabbatical limit, as SU President. Twins said she would be “fully neutral in the DSU sabbatical officer elections” and not advocate for any particular candidate.

Dan Lonsdale is a Durham local, and a second-year student studying sociology. Lonsdale says he has experienced “the University’s culture problem first-hand […] in relation to local people” and believes he can change that image by “widening participation and make Durham hospitable for everyone”, which he argues will “make the University stronger”.

Lonsdale’s manifesto includes commitments to increase the working-class student intake at Durham, provide free sanitary products in toilets, and push for adequate lighting to be installed along the riverside. He also wants to lobby the University to publish the report into last term’s Christmas formal at South College. Lonsdale also proposes a commission of “relevant student societies and reps” who will be “keeping us honest and in touch with the student voice”.

However, a lot of Lonsdale’s policies are have already been partially implemented by the University, or considered by the SU. Sanitary towels can be found in some University toilets such as the Bill Bryson Library, the SU has already demanded the release of the South report, a University decision, while river lighting has previously been rejected in certain areas by local authorities in order to discourage the use of dangerous walkways near rivers at night.

Sophie Corcoran is perhaps the most high-profile candidate this year. The first-year business management student at Josephine Butler college makes regular appearances as a right-wing political commentator on GB and TalkRadio. Corcoran is campaigning on a platform of making the SU “anti-woke”, saying she is “tired of the woke nonsense, I don’t care about decolonising Durham or any of that rubbish.”

Corcoran says the SU should be spending its money and resources on “affordable housing, to stop wearing masks, better sports and societies and a campus that respects free speech” and “common sense”. She says she will use her contacts to bring in “good speakers and people who would give good career advice”, and take a “no-nonsense approach”. She also called out candidates who run for SU positions “just to improve their CV or start their political career”, saying she is running because “I’m fed up of these elitist woke Marxists running our students unions.”

While Corcoran’s proposals for the SU stand out, it is questionable if her policies could be implemented. Corcoran for example wants to remove Covid-19 restrictions such as wearing face masks in buildings, a decision the University makes based on public health advice, and which is likely to have already been made by the start of the presidential term. Corcoran also offers no detail on how she would help students with finding affordable housing.

Campaigning statements on Twitter have also been rebuffed, such as “there will be no white privilege lectures in my SU” (this is not something the SU has done or has revealed plans to do) and plans to make “sports and socs completely free to attend” (sports are overseen by Team Durham, not the SU, and all academic society memberships are currently free, though other societies are not).

Joseph McGarry is currently President of St Aidan’s JCR, having completed his Maths degree at the college. He has been actively involved in many of his college roles, and aims to use his experience to fight for issues “with the resource that only the SU has.”

His main priority is to push to reduce the costs of college accommodation. He argues that such high prices mean “second and third years are now priced out of living in their colleges, which encourages erosion of the college culture”. He says “only our Union has the resources to fight this”, and will call for “practical ways to reduce college rent”, such as lobbying colleges to provide reduced catering packages, similar to the scheme in St Cuth’s, where some students can opt in for just 10 of the 21 meals a week.

The two-time Senior Frep promises “to raise representative voices”, and cited examples such as the exclusion of the Working Class Students’ Association (WCSA) in last year’s Accommodation Charging Review group as something he wants to avoid. McGarry wants to consult widely in a push to end the University’s “damaging zero tolerance drug policy”.

Aditya Lathar has already attempted to become DSU President, after losing out in last year’s elections. A final year law student from Stephenson College, President of the Indian Society, and elected Durham delegate for the National Union of Students (NUS), Lathar has organized his policies into three areas: “academics”, “recreation” and “convenience and welfare”.

Some of Lathar’s landmark policies include providing access to Durham’s e-library up to five years after a student graduates, launching a University Press funded by the SU, provide free printing for students in the SU and in JCRs every weekend, and provide e-bikes in all colleges. He wants to host more events in the SU to increase student engagement (including a Cultural Fest and book re-sell events), and restore trust between the SU and JCRs.

Lathar’s policies are ambitious, but many will need broader support than the SU to be implemented, especially funding for a University Press, e-library access, and college e-bikes, all of which are within the University’s remit. However, some campaign pledges last year, such as a swimming pool at Maiden Castle, have been shelved.

Declan Merrington is the current Postgraduate Academic Officer at the SU. Formerly an Education master’s student, Merrington says he will “approach this role as I do now as PG Officer”, ensuring he listens “to all sorts of voices” and by working democratically.

Merrington says his key priority will be to implement the Culture Commission, the centrepiece of current President Seun Twins’ two terms in office. The final Commission report, however, is yet to be published, despite promises that the work would be complete in Michaelmas 2021, and just 86 students submitted testimonies in the initial research phase last academic year.

The Labour Party activist also promises to kickstart the implementation of the SU’s new strategy, while keeping “respectful” relations with JCRs, some of whom have been moving to independence as charities, and many of whom cut ties with the SU following the Re-Open Nominations (RON) controversy in 2020. Merrington vows to work with other officers to evaluate students’ role in the local housing market.

Other sabbatical manifestos

The four other DSU sabbatical roles also form part of the election, but three of those roles will only see one candidate standing, with RON the only other option. The Welfare and Liberation Officer candidate is Laura Curran, the Undergraduate Academic Officer role Joshua Freestone, and the Postgraduate Academic Officer by Cynthia Lawson. That leaves the Opportunities Officer race, where incumbent Jack Ballingham hopes to secure a second year in the role, facing off against Blake Liu.

Jack Ballingham claims that the SU has been “one of the most outspoken and radical” Students’ Unions in the country, something which Ballingham wants to preserve by staying on as Opportunities Officer. The International Relations graduate and Labour Club Co-Chair says he will continue the work he has started since coming to the role last August.

This will include continued opposition to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, and restarting the “living wage” campaign to challenge the University “on poor pay, conditions and hours”. He also wants to make it easier to run SU societies, and complete the implementation of the Democracy Review, which has proved controversial, with the latest proposals to change representation struck down in the SU’s Assembly.

Ballingham proposes that the SU uses its commercial activity to enter the housing market and challenge landlords. Ballingham says SUs such as Lancaster already do this, but taking on a role in the notorious housing market like Durham’s will no doubt be a major challenge.

Blake Liu is the other candidate vying to become Opportunities Officer. Liu focuses on graduate prospects in his pitch, promising “great reform […] landing you in the world top 100 companies [sic]”, and support for further research in elite universities.

It is unclear how Liu intends to achieve his goal, other than emailing students “recommendations of internship or volunteering suitable for the course you are doing”, a service already provided by the University’s Careers Service, and producing “more opportunities for leisure activities”.

In his video pitch for the role, Liu says, “if you like it, go for it. If you don’t like it, it’s fine, don’t worry”.

Laura Curran is a master’s student in Philosophy, having studied PPE at Collingwood as an undergraduate. Curran is vying to become Welfare and Liberation Officer, and has set out a six-point plan to promote a positive consent culture, fix student housing, help those with imposter syndrome, provide training on EDI and nights out, and look beyond Covid-19.

Some of Curran’s key polices include calling out bad housing practices by landlords and lobby for a five-year rent freeze. Curran also intends to develop an app to help people get home safely after a night out. She proposes continuing remote counselling provision and to provide specific resources for those experiencing imposter syndrome.

Joshua Freestone studies Politics and Philosophy at Josephine Butler College, with the second-year student pushing to become Undergraduate Academic Officer. Unusually Freestone is not waiting until he graduates to take up this role, but argues this will help him as he understands “the experiences and hardships” that many of his fellow undergraduates are undergoing alongside him.

Freestone says he sees himself as a “delegate”, and as Undergraduate Officer vows to take a collaborative approach, including an “open door policy” where he will listen to any concerns raised by students. He argues “the SU should be visible at the forefront of every student struggle” and will fight hard to promote “positive change” at the University, but does not outline which specific policies he could enact to meet his overarching aims of improving undergraduate representation.

Cynthia Lawson is currently studying for a master’s in Social Research Methods, having completed her Criminology degree at Durham. “An advocate for social change and equality”, Lawson has identified some key issues with postgraduate life at the University, namely the divide “between undergraduates and postgraduates” and enriching student life away from just studying.

Lawson says she will push for Durham to be “more inclusive for all postgraduates who may feel alone in a new city”, such as launching more social events for postgraduates, more integration of postgraduates into colleges, widening access to postgraduate degrees, and providing more study spaces. Like many other candidates, Lawson will need to work with several student and University bodies to make her plans work (especially on study spaces) and may struggle to engage postgraduates who are often only on campus for one or two years.

Image Credit: Peter Reed via Flickr

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