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Shane Greer: The Battle for Student Government


Shane (blog) is a member of the Conservative Party, and is currently interning at the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia. In this article, the second in a trilogy, he looks at what lessons we can learn from student campaigning in the US.

It almost seems redundant to highlight the dominance leftists enjoy in student government up and down the United Kingdom.  However just as it is important to remind ourselves how privileged we are to have running water, something we often take for granted, so too is it important to remind ourselves of the travesty it is to have as the status quo a state of leftist absolutism in our university student governments. 

The sad truth is that on the vast majority of university campuses, the choice in student government elections is between different shades of the left; between Coke and Pepsi.  The net result of this of course is something each of us, in our own universities, is far too familiar with.  This being so, and without wishing to take the soft drink analogy too far, I humbly submit it is our job to ensure that lemonade is also on offer; and most importantly of all, made the drink of choice.  The question of course is how do we achieve this? 

As indicated in the first article in this series, it is my belief that victory in the battle for student government will only be achieved if young conservatives are trained in the political technology necessary to ensure victory.  It is to this technology that we now turn.

When I indicated in the first article that political technology is the "organisational and communications technology which determines political success", I was not referring to technology in the traditional sense; i.e. laptops, blackberries, and so forth (although in modern campaigning they are certainly important).  Political technology is something altogether different.  It refers to the manner in which a campaign team is structured, the way the campaign’s message is communicated for best effect, the techniques the campaign team employs to get out the vote etc.  It is not therefore a single identifiable thing; instead it comprises all the elements of a political campaign which make that campaign successful.  Political technology is nothing if not a comprehensive beast. 

This being so it is far beyond the scope of this article to provide a comprehensive guide to running a successful campaign for student government. Instead I intend to highlight one particular technique falling under the umbrella of campus based political technology, which departs from the methods usually employed in student government elections and could, if applied in the UK, yield significant results.  However it is first necessary to dispel the following myth: that the American style campus based political technology I am talking about simply will not work in British universities.  

In responding to this myth one must first ask at what time US influenced campus based political technology was disastrously employed in a campaign for student government at a British university.  The answer of course is never.  The corollary of this fact is not that such techniques would work in the UK; rather it is that we will only know whether they will work if we take the plunge and start to employ them.  Indeed as Chris Stio, Director of the Leadership Institute’s Campus Leadership Program, recently pointed out to me, “we didn’t know whether it would work over here [the US] until we started trying it 50 years ago.”  If American conservatives had been so quick to dismiss political technology out of hand, their position on campus would be radically different than it is today. 

It is also worth bearing in mind that political technology, whilst an unfamiliar concept in student government elections, has a long history in mainstream UK politics.  An early example of the effective use of political technology is Thomas Clarkson’s diagram of a slave ship, published in 1786, depicting hundreds of slaves confined in cramped, inhumane conditions.  As Lawrence W. Reed has pointed out, this diagram, which communicated the full force of the anti-slavery movement’s message, proved to be pivotal in winning the public debate.   

The current style of campaigning for student government in British universities is grossly outdated.  How often have you seen the following on your campus - starting a few weeks before election day, a series of campaign teams, wearing matching ‘Vote 4 xxxx’ t-shirts, start passing out flyers (which express the candidates’ desire to "work hard" for students) to anyone who will take one.   On election day itself, these same teams congregate outside the polling stations, possibly with a bucket of sweets, asking passers-by if they have a) voted, and b) would like to vote for xxxx.  It is hardly surprising so few votes are required to win office in student government, when the aforementioned can be said to represent the entirety of modern campaigns for student government. 

However, as depressing as the current situation may appear to be, it is worth bearing in mind that it is precisely ineffective campaigns of the aforementioned nature which we would be competing against in our attempts to dislodge the left.  So what kind of techniques does US style campus based political technology offer us which could tip the scales in our favour?  What follows in an example of one such technique. 

At the Leadership Institute’s Youth Leadership School, the importance of conducting a ‘campus canvas’ is stressed more than anything else.  For conservative students in the US, a well organised campus canvass is the rock upon which the church of electoral victory is built. 

The purpose of the campus canvass is simple: to contact all, or almost all, members of the student body so as to identify support, or likely support, for the candidate.  For it to be effective two things are required: time, and a sufficient number of volunteers.  Furthermore, and importantly, it must be completed long before election day.  With the proper training and a little organisation, a campus canvass is simple, comprehensive, and highly effective. 

In the US a campus canvass is conducted in the following manner:

  • The campaign manager allocates to each volunteer a particular area of responsibility.  For example, each hall of residence will have one volunteer appointed to coordinate the execution of the campus canvass within that hall.  Similarly, in the private residential areas of the city were student population is high, further volunteer coordinators will be appointed.  By dividing the student body in this manner, the completion of the canvass is made much easier.  For example it allows the campaign manager to reallocate volunteers from areas which have been completed, to areas which have not yet been completed. 
  • The canvass itself asks students a series of questions relating to issues upon which the candidate will be standing, and finishes by asking whether the student would support the candidate.  The information gathered through this process allows the campaign to identify the students who either support the candidate, or support particular issues upon which the candidate is standing; thus enabling microtargeting.  With this knowledge, the campaign team is then able to build a relationship with these students in the run-up to election day. 

At this point you may be asking yourself how the above differs from the canvases carried out door-to-door in mainstream British politics.  The answer is, very little.  What distinguishes the campus canvass from our point is that it is tailored to student politics, and that we do not currently carry it out.  This latter distinction highlights the central point of this article: with regard to the implementation of campus based political technology in the fight against the left, the only absolute bar to electoral success will be our own unwillingness to try it out

The campus canvass is simply one out of a wide range of techniques falling under the umbrella of campus based political technology.  Alone, it will not deliver electoral success; instead it provides the platform upon which success can be built.  All that is required for us to replicate the successes of conservative students across the pond is a departure from doing nothing.  If we can commit to that, if we can commit to at least trying out some of the techniques which fall under the umbrella of campus based political technology, then we will be moving in the right direction.

Previous entry in this series: The challenge for young conservatives (which got the attention of the Washington Times)


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