Inclusive Borda will make our democracy better

Thursday 20-04-2017 - 17:21

Everyone knows by now that we need to make NUS' democracy more inclusive.

Whether you've been part of the year-long consultation process, read the letters and blogs from NUS officers, or been confused at conference by the weird way NUS does decision-making, it's hardly controversial to say something needs to change. And now we have the opportunity to make that change - to NUS' officer structures, accountability process and (here we go, this is what the blog's about) the way we elect people.

Right now, our voting system doesn't quite fit.

NUS is an organisation that claims to value diversity and champions minority views. But the transferable vote method we use at the moment allows minority positions and new ideas to be overruled every time by a simple majority. So England can overrule Nations, White delegates can overrule Black, straight delegates can overrule LGBTQ+, HE can overrule FE etc.

The current system is also very complicated: rounds of counting preference votes that go up and down in value depending on who's left in the race.

For years we've put up with a voting method that benefits the small elite of candidates and voters who understand the maths, can track voters on their massive spreadsheets, and can guarantee the number of first preferences that's just enough to get a candidate elected. It's a method that works for disciplined factions, meaning our committees represent the three or four biggest groups rather than the membership as a whole. In the end it's a system that's less about democracy and more about the ability of a handful of leaders in NUS to learn the game and get their calculations right.

At National Conference in Brighton, we've got a chance to change all that.

The 'Inclusive Borda' system proposed in the Strengthening NUS Democracy motion is far simpler, and means that any candidate stands a chance of winning even if they're the first choice for only a minority of voters. It's a voting method that awards points to each candidate based on how high you rank them in your preferences, with the most points going to your first preference and so on for all the people you want to vote for.

If you think this sounds a bit like the Eurovision voting system, then you're spot on. Douze points is always worth douze points, nul points always means nul points.

Inclusive Borda counting means every voter counts because every vote counts. There’s no threshold where some votes stop being counted, or end up being worth 0.01 of a vote - every preference you give you every candidate is worth just as much as you want it to. It’s about taking into consideration every vote: what voters want as well as what they really don’t want.

This also encourages more people to stand, because if there’s a populist candidate who’s a clear favourite with the majority but very unpopular with the minority then other candidates stand a chance. It means that a candidate who can campaign for people's second, third and fourth preference votes also stands a chance against candidates who know the ropes. Inclusive Borda is a system where second, third and fourth preferences really can be the tie-breaker in a close race, and means every candidate should try to campaign for every single delegate at conference.

This way, it can make our democracy more about debate and decision-making, it can make election outcomes more diverse, and it can make negative campaigning less effective. This isn't just about changing the way that NUS' membership elects people, but changing how we behave around democratic decisions in our movement.

Borda has sometimes been criticized (including in amendments submitted to conference!) as a system that encourages 'packing' an election with lots of similar candidates to starve other candidates of points, or a system which focuses on 'least worst' winners rather than picking the very best candidate.

These things can sometimes be true in the context of national elections and party politics, but it's not true in an organization like NUS. In fact, a 'slate' of similar candidates in an Inclusive Borda count here will be competing all the way down ballot with candidates who pick up lower-ranked preferences from the mass of non-factional delegates. And of course the 'very best' candidates have a strong advantage still, because first preference votes will be worth more! But they can't just be the 'very best' candidate for a tiny minority of voters if they're very unpopular with everyone else. If anything, NUS' various factions will have to be broader and more willing to engage with other people to succeed in a Borda system, because they can no longer rely on crossing a simple threshold of first-preferences.

Inclusive Borda is a system which makes sense, lives up to NUS' values, and makes our democracy better. If that's the change that you want to see in NUS, then let's do it together, and support the Strengthening NUS Democracy motion at National Conference!

Rob Henthorn
NUS Scotland Vice President (Education)


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