Problems with the Democratic Structures and Officer review (from a Liberation perspective)


The Democratic Structures and Officer review proposes some significant changes to the way Guild democracy works, especially with regards to the role of the Guild Sabbatical Officers in leading the Guild and orienting its activity.

In the Extraordinary Guild Council today (6pm, Guild Council Chambers) we will be discussing amendments to the Review that could potentially ameliorate some of those issues, and may result in the proposals going forth to the campus-wide referendum in April/May being viable alternatives to the current Guild set-up. There will be a write up on those amendments in a tiny bit, following  this.

There is a lot to be said about the Review and the models proposed, but they will not be covered here – below is only a few brief thoughts on why the proposals (as proposed) in the Review are concerning from the perspective of a Liberation Association (further details on why the proposals are wack more generally can be found elsewhere).

Apologies in advance for the general sloppiness of the post and any incoherent content; was a bit rushed and am a bit sleepy.



Problems with the new General Assemblies schedule

The Review at one point states ‘an analysis of the motions passed through Council in 2012/13 suggest that not one motion was passed which would have been time-sensitive to the extent that it would have been affected by only being able to be put before a forum of this type once-per-term.’

Making this call itself seems very subjective, but it is used as a rationale for having less General Assembly meetings in the new model which will inevitably make the Guild less responsive to issues arising.

Also seems to be mostly untrue, as the list of motions below indicates – all these motions were time-sensitive to the extent that their not passing when they did (or having to wait until an end-of-term assembly) would have negatively impacted the work the Guild could do towards them, or particular groups of students, significantly.
The Guild may not have imploded had they not passed when they did, but that’s not the point of Council or democracy – both are designed to allow the Guild to respond to its members’ needs and demands as and when they arise.

The only solution offered by the new proposal in is (none). But from the general tone of the review, one would assume that SOG as a decision-making/’leadership’ body would be the only alternative for pushing through motions and mandates where time was a factor, with the Sabbatical Officers voting between themselves on what the Guild should do for its members. This is bad democracy.


Date Motion title Motion summary Why time is a factor
May 2012 (Emergency GC) 5) University Action Against Protest To condemn the university’s action to threaten students with disciplinary action for their participation in the Protest Against the Protest Ban To enable Guild to respond to a pertinent, ongoing issue that required Guild intervention.
June 2012 11g) Prevent Align with NUS policy on, and oppose, government’s ‘Prevent’ initiative on counter-terrorism Was passed in response to notification that the Trustee Board had been co-operating with Prevent.This then meant an end to that activity, and so was clearly a favourable outcome for Muslims students targeted by the initiative.
11l) School of Nursing and Physiotherapy and Closures Policy To set stance and actively campaign against the closure of the Nursing & Physiotherapy department To enable Guild to respond to a pertinent, ongoing issue that required Guild intervention to be effective.
November 2012 11p) Diversity in our University: Oppose the redundancy of Dr Nafafe Guild to support campaign against Dr. Jose Nafafe’s forced redundancy. To enable Guild to respond to a pertinent, ongoing issue that required Guild intervention to be effective.
December 2012 9l) Solidarity with International students Set Guild Policy on- and support campaigns to improve the conditions of International students in the UK. For context: came shortly after significant events at London Met University. Was necessary for the Guild to prepare pre-emptively for any similar incidents arising at Birmingham.
9o) University Industrial Relations Guild’s default stance will be to support University staff strike action, and mobilise students to support such strikes – particular in light of the University’s actions to close down/downsize a number of departments recently. Having this firm stance enabled the Guild to be responsive to the issue industrial action and support actions that did arise – the timings of which were not controlled by the Guild.
January 2013 7n) Support for Syrian students Guild to commit to defending Syrian students’ ability to continue studies, if situation in Syria is affecting their financial/funding status here. Was an issue that required the Guild officers to immediately act upon (which they did) to avoid/offset potentially massive impact on a certain student group within their membership.
7o) The Guild opposes Birmingham City Council cuts Raise awareness of, and prepare campaigns against, public expenditure cuts being made by the local council. Significant issue for everyone including Guild members, campaigns proposed in response to then-imminent events.
May 2013 11o) Stand up for support workers Outline the Guild’s belief that the University is a community, with social responsibility and commitments (as opposed to some commodity or service).Also, Officers to write letter to University management outlining the Guild’s opposition their decision to propose redundancies and contract changes for support staff. To enable Guild to respond to a pertinent, ongoing issue that required Guild intervention to be effective.
11p) Liberation Emergency motions Allow Liberation Associations to propose Emergency motions with priority after the deadline for regular motions if they are of urgency to the Association and/or its members. The issues raised within the motion highlight the necessity of having the Guild’s structures being reflexive – things might happen affecting Liberation groups that require Guild representative approval.Having SOG as that sole representative is undemocratic, not having those issues highlighted and discussed with wider student representative body might be counter-productive/problematic.
November 2013 18a) Protecting personal privacy Reserved Open Place Guild Councillor positions (e.g. for LGBTQ, Disabled, BME Open Place) to be filled by a system that allows candidates to avoid publically disclosing their membership in those minority groups, so that they don’t have to ‘come out’ to the whole University in order to run. Was a decision that could have/did qualitatively affect those particular elections following shortly afterwards i.e. affected a democratic event of the Guild, was important that this was discussed (and dealt with) prior.

(Note: this motion did not pass)

18n) G4S Guild to oppose the University’s contract(s) with security company G4S for the latter’s reported complicity in human rights abuses and their incompetence.Lobby for University to exclude G4S from future contracts. Allowed the Guild to support a campaign that was time-sensitive, and one running along the University’s timescale, not one set by the Guild.
December 2013 13p) Rue Britannia For the Guild to not engage professionally with Britannia Property Services in Selly Oak because the number of complaints and issues with that agent. Allowed Guild to act upon this immediately and limit any further damages resulting from a working-relationship with Britannia Property.May have saved someone from renting a shite house and a lot of stress, who knows.
January/February 2014 11l) University Disciplinary Action Sabbatical Officers of the Guild to call for the University to cease disciplinaries against students involved in protest action, and Guild to support students going through the proceedings. To enable Council to respond to a pertinent, ongoing issue that required Guild intervention to be effective.

(Note: this motion was deferred for a number of Councils before being passed; the Guild’s [in]action during this time almost certainly came to the detriment of the affected students)

11m) NUS motions For the Guild to submit a motion to NUS National Conference advocating a one-member one-vote system for electing NUS Officers and National Executive Council Block of 15 members. Running to the NUS’ timescale, having multiple Councils just prior to their deadline enables Guild to be flexible but considered with this.


Most of these motions deal with campaigns for the Guild to support/affiliate with. These campaigns often follow their own timeline, set/constrained by that of the University or Birmingham Council or whatever deadline, given the nature of the campaign.
Waiting around for an assembly potentially months away , as in the new model proposed, would severely limit the Guild’s ability to act quickly and effectively upon the campaign.

And the campaigning-nature of the Guild (on campus and within wider society) is a central role and is an important one to maintain, if it is to act in the interests of its members and not isolate itself into some elitist inward-facing institution.


The other motions pertain to Liberation or responding to issues of marginalised groups, and protecting these interests and responding to these issues is of paramount concern to groups like us. The motion passed last May (Liberation emergency motions) itself shows that Council accepts the premise that Liberation issues aren’t always predictable and need to be reacted to quickly.

If a situation so arises where it’s necessary to quickly act upon, but also discuss an issue central to a Liberation group (maybe if only because the issue itself needs to be addressed by a wider student representative body such as Guild Council, and the action called for itself isn’t enough (sounds vague and hypothetical, but White folk need to be educated clearly and sometimes spaces like Council provide such an opportunity)) then having a voting assembly potentially months away would again limit the Guild’s ability to address the issue efficiently and properly.

More generally this brings up the point of how to protect Liberation interests and ‘Ideas’/proposals submitted through the proposed model.

Problems with the new democratic structure proposed

Generally, while opening up Guild democracy to the wider student population is a good thing as a matter of principle, due to the demographic composition here, direct democracy on this campus inevitably (unfortunately) also boils down to White people dictating our fate.
Over the years Council has seen gradual changes and improvements, both in structure and internal culture, towards respecting and acknowledging the autonomy and importance of Liberation groups and interests.

In the new model as proposed in the DSR no suggestions are made as to how to carry this over to the new more open democratic model. So as it stands Liberation is vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority – the ‘silent majority’, the White majority, or whatever formulation is preferred: it’s a majority that doesn’t necessarily have BME interests at heart or at mind.

And having ‘Ideas’ for proposal submitted by Associations carrying the same weight as normal submissions, alongside the scaling-back on deliberative democracy found in the new assemblies model (or at least compared to Guild Council), again leaves Liberation issues vulnerable and means those hard-won gains to secure Liberation at Council will have to be fought again.

Amendment 4d (Liberation working group) does offer a decent solution though, by having motions/proposals pertaining directly to the work of Liberation groups then that shall be discussed and ratified by self-defining members of the group concerned, with feedback passed back to the General Assembly later – so there’s a good compromise between codifying that Liberation autonomy whilst keeping the general voting population up to date on the rationale behind the decisions, and not annexing out Liberation issues from the wider democratic discourse. Ideally having those arguments discussed in the presence of non-defining members (but voted on by defining members) of the Assembly would have been nice to avoid this divide but in terms of practicalities and respecting the issue of members ‘outing’ themselves to the Assembly, this works well and I’m voting for it.
In action, I suppose a distinction could be made between those proposals that directly affect the work of Liberation groups and the Guild’s stance towards these issues – i.e. those for which defining members should solely vote upon, and should set the agenda on – and those that discuss actions to be taken in-line with that previously-set stance, on which all of the Assembly can vote on.

Under the new proposed structure (pre-amendments) Liberation Associations would have autonomy over their own policy and running – this is an important step and seems consistent with the gradual empowerment of Liberation Associations that Guild Council has seen over the years, thanks to the work of the Associations and individuals within them.

The new structures though, especially when coupled with the proposed abolition of Non-Sabbs, seem to remove the influence and (actual) decision-making power for Liberation groups that Liberation Non-Sabb figures and GOG allowed for.

While Liberation Associations/groups may be primarily concerned with working for and on behalf of our members, a substantial part of this work involves imposing measures and policy on to the more general structures of the Guild – i.e. mainstreaming ideas and policy – because our members will still be subject to those general structures of the Guild and whatever direction the wider membership of the Guild takes it in.

In the new model what we are left with is Liberation Associations and liberation issues being third-sectored, essentially marginalised out, of the wider Guild debates and bodies and reduced to some sort of suggestion/consultation group for Sabbatical officers that this new Chairs forum seems to represent.

The new Chairs Forum doesn’t really seem to address the issue of Non-Sabbs being overburdened, by reproducing a model where one representative of the Association is given precedence and an increased, workload without the extra support desired and needed for the role.
Really doesn’t seem any better than having the current model, albeit with Non-Sabbs receiving additional structural support from the Guild, and/or remuneration (or full-time status) as had already been called for prior to this review – the new proposal as it stands precludes any opportunity for that indefinitely too, and ignores those calls from Association/Association representatives, which is a bit of annoying.

Amendment 4g (Non-Sabbs + GOG) addresses this issue by retaining Non-Sabbatical officers, and retaining their place with the Guild Officers Group so that they can actively influence the Guild’s direction, but whilst also being given staff support for the role – which is what the Review said was necessary, but failed to act upon.


4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Voting intentions for Extraordinary Guild Council 13/3/2014 | BEMA

  2. Pingback: Voting intentions for Guild Council 27/3/2014 | BEMA

  3. Pingback: Why you should vote NO in tomorrow’s referendum on the future of the Guild: Part – time campaigning positions |

  4. Pingback: Vote NO to the Democratic Structures and Officer Review Referendum | BEMA

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