Guild Elections 2014 Post-mortem (Part One)


How to Win a Guild Election

[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].

[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’s Guild elections were perhaps the least interesting I’ve ever observed. That personal link takes us back to 2008, which I think we can all agree is an era lost in the mists of time. Dullness emanated from cardboard cut-out candidates. With but a few notable exceptions there seemed to be no drive, no passion, no courage to say or stand for anything that might have seemed slightly “controversial”, or “political”. The overall impression was of a dozen or so individuals “playing it safe”; it was more like watching candidates at a middle management job interview than bearing witness upon the next generation of inspiring leaders.

On the afternoon of results night I did the customary election geek thing of predicting the results. My personal record is 49 states out of 50 for US 2012 – but I reckoned I could do better.


With the semi-exception of the Presidential race, and the spot-the-difference VPAD contest – yeah, I totally called it. Am I the new Nostradamus (only with actual useful predictions that can be understood in advance of the events they supposedly predict)? Or is it just that there are a few predictable and formulaic ways to lock up a Guild election before its even started? [Clue: it’s the latter].

  1. Have a shit-load of cardboard.

This one is obvious almost to the point of self-evidence. Cover campus in your cardboard signs. Get painting well in advance and have a “factory” going at home. Cardboard. cardboard! CARDBOARD. The candidates with the most material set out generally do best. Why? Directly through advertising space, indirectly because voters supposedly make the mental connection  of: “They’ve put lots of effort in – they must be a good candidate”.

A classic cardboard sign factory (source: Vote Sainsbury #1 for President!)

A classic cardboard sign factory (source: “Vote Sainsbury #1 for President!” campaign video).

“But everyone hates cardboard!” Yes. They do. Just like everyone hates adverts. Most everyone with the means and knowledge to do so installs adblock on their browser – because we don’t want to play Evony or Grecopolis, and we don’t care about this ordinary womans’ “one weird tip”. Yet advertising still exists; ad agencies and departments still get their budgets. Advertising is effective despite the hate it inspires – and what is “cardboard campus” but a collection of crude soggy home-made adverts? Supposed “backlashes” against cardboard are comforting myths told by lagging candidates. For the time being cardboard appears to be effective. This feedback loop will only grow.

"Fuck you and fuck your objectification-based marketing"

“Fuck you and fuck your objectification-based marketing”

Of course it’s possible that there’s no causal relationship between cardboard coverage and electoral prospects and that we’re all massive cargo-cultists. Swings and roundabouts really. The practice only dates back to 2010, so it’s not as if elections couldn’t function without it. But can you really take that risk?

  1. Have loads of Guildy mates willing and able to campaign for you.

From Redbrick Online‘s immediate post-election coverage:

“the atmosphere at last night’s results evening was extremely tense. Frankie, running for Welfare, had over twenty members of his campaign team present. One stated: ‘we got up early every day, we campaigned every minute, we have to have faith in our preparation.'”

“over twenty”.

Granted this is Redbrick, so it could have been anywhere between 4 and 300 members in actuality.

With only 10 days of active campaigning this year (down from 12 in 2011, and 15 in 2009), the man-hour multiplier of having a large team is essential for running a saturation campaign – for covering all the bases (online, campus, lecture shouts, doorstep, cardboard factory) at all times. More people wearing your distinctive campaign costume on campus doesn’t hurt (“Wally” jumpers good, generic builder reflective jackets less good).

Getting those willing campaigners can be a challenge. Generally it helps to be popular, so misanthropes may struggle here. Secondly how do you persuade these friends, colleagues, and housemates to sacrifice so much of their personal time for your delusional ego trip? Well you could inspire them to believe in you, but if you’re not the 2008 vintage Obama this could prove tricky.

Naturally it helps to have lots of Guildy friends. If you’re already part of the clique you’ll know people who (a) care about the Guild or are at least generally aware of its existence, (b) already know that “VPDRS” is more than a string of otherwise meaningless consonants. Seriously you’ll be playing electoral evangelism on easy mode.

Good cliques to be in include Carnival, the media groups, the Residence Associations (“putting the “Ra” in RA since hall fees became unaffordable”), the Left (pre-2013, DeLorean owners take note).

A big team is an exponentially favourable asset. Candidates with overwhelmingly larger teams generally win their chosen positions. Arguably this is fair. Winning the support of potential campaigners is only a step from winning votes; a successful candidate needs to do both. Unfortunately the hyper-compressed time scale of Guild Elections means that there’s very little scope for picking up additional campaigners during the campaign – as might happen in a several month long real world campaign. Therefore candidates need to make a standing start with what support base they already have. If they’ve spent years worming their way into Guildy inner circles – deliberately so or not – then they’re already off to a strong advantage.

  1. Have money.

Elections now cost a lot. That “free and fair” white paint? Yeah, it was £20 for two litres at the Homebase down the road. We know. Everyone knows. Nobody, certainly not a student in rental property whose contract forbids redecorating, has that much white emulsion lying around. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s the t-shirts, the sweets, the other materials (all multiple items, claimed as “one”, naturally). Very soon it starts to add up to real money. Folk legend tells of a candidate who sunk over £1000 of his own cash into a campaign, on the assumption that he’d win and that his investment would pay off. It didn’t.

Alternatively a big release of election-time stress

That incredibly rare occasion when a landlord might actually be justified in taking your deposit.

Of course if you want to save money then stick within the official £60 budget and generally be honest. Go ahead. You’ll lose of course, because:

  1. Push “free and fair”to the point of credibility.

On what grounds does a garden shed count as free and fair use? Especially one that is so evidently not borrowed that it can be broken up and thrown away at the end of the campaign?

Go for broke. Drive around in a Mr. Toad motorcar while broadcasting your own digital campaign radio station. Give out free pots of Manuka honey to every student. Hell, why not just get Daddy to make a large private donation to the Guild itself. That online votes tally can’t be too difficult to fabricate, and every returning officer has his price…

  1. Don’t be a “lefty”.

Being a lefty is bad electoral branding right now. Probably because of that time when those anarchists completely smashed up campus, or some other equivalent misrepresentation. Also perhaps because Birmingham has always had an unusually right-wing student body.

Basically if you want to win, don’t be one of them. Be a nice comfortable centrist. I hear that Labour Students is lovely this time of year. Maybe say a few token things as a gesture to a heritage of student radicalism – or to the idea that University might be a place for challenging conventional thinking. Nothing too extreme though. Don’t mention the increasingly deleterious effects that marketisation is having on higher education. Don’t even think about mentioning the increasingly hostile world that exists for less privileged young people. And under no circumstances talk about feminism. Notions of gender equality and challenging entrenched misogyny upset the BanterLADS. Can’t have that.

  1. Smear the left.

If you’re not a lefty, great! If your opponent is, even better! Tell voters on the doorstep that your opponent will “wreck the Guild”. Or maybe they’ll smash up campus for shits and giggles. Not true? Who cares? Who needs truth when you have potent and emotive straw men. Technically this counts as negative campaigning, and is therefore against election regulations – but don’t worry about that! No one has ever been caught out, and the people running the elections probably hate the Left as much as you do.

If you lack the nerve to outright smear, there’s always anonymous online campaigning. Normandy, Goose Green, Vote RON 2013 – the annals of human history are made of such examples of selfless bravery.

  1. Don’t be quiet, considered, nuanced, or principled.

U fukin wot m8? Thoughtful hustings answers? Minimal low-key campus presence? Intelligent detailed policies? Modesty and humility? Jog on mate!

That’s it, stick a costume on! Now dance for me, up and down. My attention’s waning… do something else. Shout “cheaper drinks” a lot! Act self-important and aloof, like you’re the biggest ego in the room – that’ll do the trick. Now go paint some more fucking cardboard!

Whatever happens don’t think that you can win on issues alone through gradually speaking to people in a non-intrusive way. You’ll be steamrollered .

[I am genuinely quite gutted for Themis – the most personable and perhaps the most insightful of all the candidates. He was almost too good to be a Guild Election candidate. He deserved so much better. Getting only slightly more votes than a candidate who didn’t even campaign stings. I should know.]

"Read AND Think? - I thought this was a University?" [Photo Credit: Sven Richardson]

“Read AND Think? – I thought this was a University?” [Photo Credit: Sven Richardson]

  1. Ignore hustings.

99% of attendees will be fellow candidates and their teams. You can listen to the same stump speeches all over again, or you can go out and speak to new voters. Your call.

  1. Lecture shout early and often.

Not all candidates shout from the beginning. The ones that do tend to do better. The problem is that competition increases each day, until half the candidates turn up to the same lecture and suddenly Dr. Lecturer isn’t playing anymore. Use the intranet. Data mine a cross-campus room timetable. Seize the best possible opportunity for voter per minute vocal exposure.

  1. Rely on the Guild’s turnout push to funnel ill-informed impulse voters towards you.

Each year’s election turnout distribution follows a familiar and predictable pattern. A spike on Monday, followed by a gradual decline through to midweek, followed by a resumed increase and a second spike on Friday. This year was no exception.

It stands to reason that Monday’s spike is the Guild hacks, the insiders, and all of those who know what’s going on and who are informed or who are at least prepared to inform themselves. Also perhaps some first years for whom elections are a novelty, but who at least have time to read the manifestos and put some consideration into it.

The midweek slow drip represents the students “getting round to it”. There’s still time for them to make an informed choice. Maybe they’re even people you spoke to on the door that evening. The system works!

Then comes Friday. The mad rush. Don’t forget to vote! You must, you just must! Not only does it make us (the Guild) look good if we get a relatively high turnout, say pushing 20%; but also… yay, democracy! And so like sheep herded into an especially bureaucratic dip, they’re funnelled into the library. Come on! Vote you bastard! There’s people waiting here… just tick any box! Hurry up… do you even want a fucking lolly you worthless piece of human shit!*

Better hope the lazy last-minute voting drone clocked your big cardboard-banner-shed thing on the way to the library. Isn’t short-term memory beautiful?

*note: may not represent actual Guild GOTV practice

  1. Be uncontested.

Keep it under your hat, but apparently this really helps.

[To be continued in: Part Two – Hacks gonna hack: Obsessive Presidential Vote Overanalysis.]


This entry was posted in Campus politics, Electoral Strategy, Nash and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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