Deal or no deal? Should the Left do electoral deals?

Student politicians make a case for and against preference deals.

Disclaimer: Lauren Lancaster is a member of Switch and Grassroots and is SRC President. Oscar Chaffey is a former member of Switch and Grassroots. James Sheriff is a member of Student Left Alliance and Black Flag.

In defense of the deal
By Lauren Lancaster and Oscar Chaffey.

The most famous day on the USyd stupol calendar is the first council meeting after that year’s SRC election. Synonymous with acrimony, the “RepsElect” meeting sees over a hundred thousand dollars worth of stipends awarded to paid office bearers and many other activist positions elected. For three years now, RepsElect has been a family affair — a supermajority deal has been signed between the campus far-left, Labor and international student factions to all but entirely lock the campus Liberals out of positions. 

2022 looks extremely unlikely to be different. Lia Perkins was elected uncontested as the fourth consecutive Grassroots SRC president. The campus Liberals have not been a meaningful force in SRC elections since the defeat of Josie Jakovac in 2019. A left-wing supermajority seems the most plausible outcome of September’s SRC election. 

The effect of such prolonged dominance by the left on the culture of student politics must not be overlooked. At minimum, you would need to be a fifth year (like one of your humble co-authors) to remember a RepsElect genuinely contested and won by right wing students. Institutional memories of the before times have begun to fade as elder hacks have moved on to lives outside of university politics. 

While this era should, on face value, be celebrated by left wing students, the broader history of student politics has grimmer tales to tell of factions that enjoy prolonged eras of dominance. The Students for Education Action (SEA), organised much like modern day Grassroots, won ten straight SRC presidential elections in the 1990s before being defeated by the campus Liberals and never winning again. National Labor Students (NLS), the main Labor Left faction, enjoyed unparalleled dominance over the 2000s and early 2010s. 

Winning repeatedly gradually shifts the risk calculus and priorities of movements. When there is no immediate threat of right wing control animating left wing students to action and critique, that energy is turned inwards. There is more time to discuss the (very real) differences between various left wing groups. There is more time to debate what is a truly worthwhile political project. Defending your views is no doubt an invaluable exercise for personal political development and consequently, for the health of the left. This culture of critique is, however, fertile for the growth of a perennial but usually extremely marginal ideology: ultra-leftism, which can be best described as losing in style. A recent letter written by the Student Left Alliance (SLA) arguing against dealmaking by factions in elections is part of this proud tradition.

This article will rebut the central claims in the SLA’s letter and defend the deals that have characterised the last generation of student politics. First, a disclaimer: we’ve both given years of our lives, received much in return from this project and seen the good that it has done. 

The SLA takes greatest umbrage with the allegedly undemocratic nature of deals. It is unclear that deferring entirely to collectives like the EAG, composed of a relatively small subset of heavily involved activists, is necessarily the best way to elect important campus-wide political positions. Direct elections within spaces as politically contested as the EAG are a surefire way to cause factions to start stacking meetings, which is not a noble democratic outcome. Many students vote for their visions in elections and we shouldn’t dismiss them as immediately worthless if they are not organised within the EAG. 

It bears clarifying that the SLA has never been denied involvement in election deals; they have repeatedly refused to engage with them out of choice. When they have, it has been opportunistic. In 2021, Solidarity (part of the SLA) made an eleventh-hour bid for a paid Education Officer position that had been dealt to Socialist Alternative much earlier. Despite having a council seat in the 2022 SRC, Solidarity has almost never used it to engage with the political character of the council.

Even if there is some trade-off between democracy and factional deals, we are prepared to make it. At USyd, students don’t get to directly vote for office bearers like they do, for instance, at UTS or UNSW. Elections at USyd are not fought as binary left-right contests but instead between several distinct factions. While Grassroots has historically adopted common sense strategies (e.g. running a lot of tickets) to try maximise mileage in the quota system, it is still extremely challenging to win the simple majority that is needed to elect the eight paid positions in the SRC. Many factions, rightly or wrongly, care uniquely about paid positions like the Education Officer and the arrangement of these positions is often the justification for and centerpiece of election deals. 

A deal allowing the EAG to decide the Education Officers is a non-starter for most factions. Self evidently, deals need to be amenable to other factions for them to sign, otherwise they jeopardise everything that the left otherwise can secure from them. We believe it is entirely sensible to make concessions to sign deals, rather than abstain from them and be locked out for a year.

Before the inane question of “whether positions are really worth it” gets asked, we think that leftwing control of the SRC has several unambiguous benefits. It gives activist projects and collectives tens of thousands of dollars to expand their reach and fund mutual aid initiatives. Failure to secure this money would mean no control over collective funding, no money for Radical Education Week and less coverage of activism. SRC positions are often quite meaningful to gaining legitimacy with students to call actions like student general meetings. This is to say nothing about the Honi Soit censorship or eroded SSAF allocations that would come with right wing operators.

The SLA goes on to argue that contested elections are healthy for left wing movements. We agree and have always been entirely prepared to politically contest elections. Importantly though, while the SRC election is an opportunity to reach students who typically disengage, the health of campus politics must obviously exist beyond this two week contest. This is why, when given the chance to guarantee left wing control of the SRC, we take it.

The SLA’s final argument is that factional deals legitimise and build right wing movements, most prominently Student Unity (Labor Right). This is hardly an empirically supported claim. Three successive supermajority deals with these groups have been successful at locking out the worst right-wing actors, the campus Liberals, from any influence on the student union. The death of right wing institutional knowledge is, on its own, an outcome worth defending. 

Since 2019, USyd Unity has deviated from national Student Unity on many political questions and as a consequence have disaffiliated. Their members have been extremely active in organising strike solidarity. We think that matters. This is also true of Socialist Alternative (SA), who the SLA have also taken issue with. We will be the first to admit that SA can often act objectionably, but they have demonstrated willingness to actively engage with student unions and education activism.

Left-wing success in student unions is neither inevitable nor simple to repeatedly execute. Being left wing means nothing if not for the actualisation of our political goals in the real world. That is the principle we care most about, and it is why we will continue to do what ultra-leftists abhor: engaging in the messy, even imperfect, work of elections.

Why deals won’t win a Left SRC
By James Sheriff.

SRC elections are crucial for the student Left. However, winning these elections should not come at the expense of building a strong student movement from the ground up. Student Left Alliance believes that the pre-election deals made by most factions and the bartering of political support for opportunistic factional gain is undermining the broader effort to build an engaged, politically coherent, and unified mass student movement. In short, we believe it is not just winning the election, but how we win, that matters. 

The political strategy of the student union is decided based on the strength of the left- and right-wing factional blocs, and important resources are allocated to activist campaigns through office bearer positions and the presidency. Elections should be fiercely contested by all left-wing factions in order to secure a radical student union and its resources — on this we agree. However, we should not contest student elections simply to win these positions and resources. The election period is also a key moment to engage with students across the university, to challenge the apathy and disillusionment that the majority of students feel with ‘student politics’, and to convince them of left-wing politics and the need to take organised, radical action. 

The focus on securing positions through negotiations and pre-election deals is ultimately self-defeating; this does not engage students in the movement or convince them of the political importance of voting Left in the elections. This approach encourages factions to use the promise of political support for a Left bloc to secure paid office bearer positions, only reinforcing the perception that many students have of the SRC as a political playground. Securing these positions months before the election is held, on the basis of the hypothetical strength of certain factions, is not “giving all students a say in who their office bearers are,” as has been claimed. “Giving away” positions in return for a faction’s votes at RepsElect subverts the possibility of genuine political contestation of these positions during either RepsElect or open collective elections, as the votes become a foregone conclusion. 

The SRC should elect the best office bearers on merit. In the interests of building a stronger Left and stronger movements at Sydney Uni, office bearer positions should be held by candidates who are democratically endorsed by as many students involved in those campaigns as possible, based on their commitment to the campaigns and their experience as collaborative student activists. A backroom deal decided by a tiny minority of students can never represent the will of the student body in this way.

If Labor Right requires the General Secretary position in order to support a left-wing Education Officer and President, then they have no true claim to any position in the ‘Left bloc’ and we should call their bluff in a contested presidential election. Similarly, if Socialist Alternative is unwilling to back a left-wing presidential candidate unless key positions are dealt to them, perhaps they are not best suited to these positions. Ultimately, if the Left does not secure the presidency and a Council majority in an open, contested election, we are wasting a major opportunity to engage with students and win them to our ideas, papering over the organising work that needs to be done to win in future. 

The strength of the Left is not our ability to cut deals — our strength is our ability to mobilise a mass of students to fight for real change. Our task is to encourage students to be actively involved in campaigns in support of the staff strikes, for real climate action, for Indigenous justice, and addressing the cost of living crisis. This means using every opportunity that is available to politicise the student body, to encourage students to make an active choice in favour of these campaigns and left-wing ideas. If we win a Left SRC on the back of deals, and not mass support for these campaigns and grassroots involvement in the student movement, we are relying on a strategy of negotiation rather than mobilisation, and we are building our movement on sand. When conditions change, our success will fall out from beneath us, and the campaigns will be abandoned by factions only willing to support the Left if they get something in return. 

SLA is a group of students from across the USyd collectives. We have worked alongside other education activists and NTEU comrades to build each and every strike through the EAG and across faculties. We have been shoulder to shoulder on the picket lines and shut down scab classes. We have organised consistently through the Enviro Collective to mobilise students through climate strike contingents, Student General Meetings, and mass walk-offs for climate action. This has been our focus in forming this campaign – to bring as many students as possible into these campaigns and the collectives, and to cut through the apathy many students feel towards ‘student politics’, activism, and SRC elections.

We will be using the opportunity of this election to mobilise students for the September 15 rally against casualisation, the September 24 climate strike, and the 48 hour staff strikes in Week 10.