View from the Sidelines: The Pirate Puusta Campaign
[DISCLAIMER: This is post of very niche interest. If you are among the 99.99999% of the human population who have no direct interest in the University of Birmingham Guild of Students elections, you may wish to look away now. Also in the past on TCOGB I’ve had a policy of “no Guild shit”. I’m temporarily waiving that policy].
[As previously noted, at the time of writing I have not read any other post-Guild Election commentary. This is to avoid developing any potential GroupThink-induced confirmation bias. The opinions and conclusions expressed are entirely my own.]
This year I casually observed the “Pirate Puusta” campaign. I’ve always believed that election campaigning should be fun – the Pirate campaign definitely lived up to that. The ethos of the campaign was one of not taking things too seriously, having a laugh, brainstorming inane ideas for cardboard signs, and generally tapping into their deep collective pools of despair and cynicism. Their private target was to finish at least fourth place among the five candidates, potentially (they hoped, dreamed even) of reaching as high as third. Well they smashed that target – placing a solid third, making it through to the third round of four under STV, securing a full 20% of the vote. Not bad for a couple of people who struggle to get up before noon.
I also hear that they rustled a few jimmies.
So what was the Pirate Puusta campaign about? Its roots go deeper than the Guild and Guild politics. They go as deep as to touch upon the very political philosophy behind representative democracy. The campaign acted silly to draw attention to a very serious issue. It mocked – not because issues and policies are worthy of mockery – but because our institutions, our organisations and our democratic structures are.
Modern social policy can be accused of being condensed to one simplistic formula: run input through policy framework, get favourable output. We assume that politicians as our elected representatives have an outcome – be it social or economic – in mind, and that they implement policy to achieve that outcome. Further we hope that representative democracy enables our votes to translate into a majority consensus, which in turn will mandate representatives to implement policy, eventually achieving the outcomes we collectively desire. Our votes are coins in the vending machine of policy. The snack retrieved from the collection draw is our legislation, our transformed society, our utopia.
But what if that framework breaks down? What if our desired outcomes are too complex or unpredictable to be modelled by systems analysis? What if our representatives – through active malice, incompetence, or inability – are unable to implement the policies that they were elected on? What if our representative bodies are not sovereign, and have no power to implement the change we vote for? What if the democratic structures themselves are the problem?
Returning to the vending machine metaphor; say for instance that we gave a mate some change to get us a Kitkat. We’d be quite pissed off, and rightly so, if they came back with a Bounty. Say they’d decided that they knew better, or someone else they spoke to had persuaded them so. Maybe the machine was misprogrammed, or it jammed? It would be naïve in real life to assume that the only factor influencing public policy was the will of the electorate. A legislator or an executive will face other pressures – from their own supporters, from outside agents, from organisation and legal constraints. The will of their electors, their very mandate, will be but one voice among many. And so it is that when we vote Kitkat we often get Bounty.
Political apathy and low electoral turnout is on the increase across the developed world. The contract between elector and elected has too often been broken. Bad faith leads to cynicism.
Our Guild is a partial microcosm of real world democratic bodies. Much as unaccountable and unelected agencies like the IMF and currency markets can constrain the free actions of elected governments; so the Guild’s freedom to act and carry out its full mandate is constrained by its supplicant position relative to the University. Just as powerful segments of the establishment like the media, the civil service, and the monarchy can have undue power and influence over a Cabinet; so a Guild Officer Group will be buffeted by organisational obstruction and hindered by negative institutional memory.
The SubTV contract – signed and renewed since the dawn of time despite universal loathing. The increasing encroachment of commercial premises on student group spaces, in exchange for minimal rents. The reversal of a plan to make FAB completely wheelchair accessible. All of these have been done in the name of the Guild and its elected Officers, yet none of them have ever featured in an election manifesto. Conversely take a policy like “more live music events”. A policy that has appeared several times over in the past six years. A policy which has surely won a mandate in its own right. A policy for which an outcome is yet to be realised.
And so exists the disconnect between election promise and policy outcome. The Guild’s inefficiency as a functioning democratic structure is not the sole cause of this, but it is clearly a problem worthy of being acknowledged.
That’s what the Pirate Puusta campaign was all about. It was about being honest with the electorate – stating clearly and bluntly that they shouldn’t get their hopes up; that they weren’t going to get the moon on a stick in exchange for voting for the most bantereffic costume. It was a riposte to the faux sincerity of it all, to the prevailing insistence that we take these elections “seriously”.
Our democratic structures are imperfect. We can pretend that they’re not – and perpetuate cynicism and apathy when another set of well-meaning promises inevitably fail. Or we can tackle it head on, fire with fire, cynicism with cynicism; by treating our electorate as intelligent adults worthy of being told the truth.
Fear and Loathing and Bees: On the Campaign Trail ’14.
Fluffy intellectual justification aside, what was the reality of the Pirate Puusta Campaign? Or rather, what was the reaction to the campaign’s message?
Reported response on the doorstep was overwhelmingly positive. People appreciated the honesty, the refreshing bluntness, and the humour of the campaign. On campus people would offer impromptu shouts of “Biodome!” Online the campaign had the largest of all Guild Election 2014 Facebook Pages, with a reach in the thousands of users and high engagement levels throughout. While small numbers caused the campaign to lag in the ground war, they dominated online. Their videos clocked nearly 500 views in a matter of days – stratospheric for a student union election.
A unique spin on cardboard signs freshened up an ageing tactic. One sign which simply read “Despair” proved remarkably popular. Combined with the online presence it was a branding which inadvertently tapped into a geeky internet-humour subculture.
Was there negativity? Of course. Opponent’s supporters were seen to rage against the campaign for not taking elections seriously enough. One even stooped to Daily Mail-esque misuse of the term “troll”. Critiques of organisational structure were misconstrued as personal attacks on organisation staff – a straw man interpretation so evidently fallacious as to suggest either calculated dishonesty or a paranoid bunker mentality. Other commentators tried to dismiss the campaign out of hand, to pretend that it didn’t exist, to stick fingers in their ears and go “la la la” at the discussion it created.
Some asserted that Ben simply couldn’t win – the certain knowledge of which would presumably imply either prescient foresight or electoral fraud. Others went to the absurd lengths of lying about the result after the fact.
Most unintentionally amusing of all was the not at all crushing judgement that the campaign simply wasn’t funny. Well fuck me with a spoon; apparently humour is objectively quantifiable now. Absurdity and surrealism, combined with world-weary bitterness and irreverence, isn’t for everyone.
“Swings and roundabouts”, to quote George Orwell.
A strong third place showing with minimal campus presence and a small team is something I would consider a phenomenal success. Throughout history some very good people have placed third in elections, people like Norman Thomas, Ralph Nader, James Hughes.
I can only hope that the lessons taken from the Pirate Puusta campaign are as follows:
Be honest and open about the limits of the system under which you hope to achieve change.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
[Thus concludes my three part semi-serious analysis of Guild Elections 2014. All opinions reflect a personal view. All facts are correct to the best of my knowledge. Well done if you got the far. Comments on style and content greatly appreciated.]