As one of the most famous university societies in the world, the Oxford Union Society is one of the most valuable assets the University has; the opportunity to listen to world-class speakers and debates exposes people to conflicts of opinion, new ideas and controversial topics. It’s hardly surprising that Oxford consequently produces so many future politicians. With an equally talented committee and team of debaters, the Union does present some of the very best parts of Oxford.
However, unless we’re careful, the Union’s place within the University as a forum for well-matched and heated debate will be lost. To some extent it already has been.
Before my arrival in Oxford this month as a Fresher, I was already well aware of the controversies that often surround the Union, particularly recently. I was expecting a certain level of distrust from the students. Most importantly, I was expecting this to be across all the students. On arrival however, I discovered it is a startlingly different state of affairs.
As expected, the Union was full to bursting on the evening of the annual debate on the motion, “This house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government”. A debate of almost legendary status, there was a noticeably strong turnout of Freshers, our first experience of the Union. However, what started to become clear was the presence of OUCA. Specifically, vocal OUCA men. On looking around to find similar representation by other political and social societies of the University, I simply couldn’t find any. OUCA’s presence was in no way a bad thing. The fact that it was not matched by any other groups and the startlingly few women among their numbers, is a bad thing. On speaking to people around Oxford, it is Feminist groups and politically centrist or left societies who have taken the strongest stand against the Union. As a student who falls into both of those categories, I had, at times, a rather uncomfortable evening.
Thankfully, any denial of Labour’s responsibility for the UK’s recession was hotly contested by the Tory MPs. Sir Alan Duncan’s sexist joke for cheap laughs however didn’t receive the reaction it should have done. It received laughs. Perhaps an indication of why, twice, the President of the Union had to directly appeal for women speakers to take the floor. Alok Sharma’s description of Thatcher as the light at the end of the 70’s Labour tunnel received cheers that were not answered with boos or protestation. The same occurred when a student made a speech for the opposition arguing that 100 years ago we were “Number One” in the world, but now, thanks to Labour, we are a measly “Number six.” Sorry, but brutal colonialism isn’t really my thing. And just to make sure a sufficient range of people felt out of place, Nicky Morgan’s tale of phoning up her Father to ask for £80 to join the Union was simply privileged, darling.
This is absolutely not a criticism of the Tories. The Union should be upheld as forum of free speech and debate. Right or wrong, it is the controversial issues which appeal to the student body and get people talking the most. And the Debate certainly had plenty to offer. Yet these issues weren’t received as controversial because of the imbalance of representation at the Debate. My gasps of astonishment were hardly going to be audible amongst the cheers of Tory men. By failing to appeal to Feminist groups and other political parties, the debate embodies the precarious self-perpetuating imbalance that made and will continue to make people like me more and more uncomfortable.
It’s not an easy situation to resolve. The logical argument would be for me to encourage as many people to join the Union as possible and attend as many debate and talks as possible, to ensure the imbalance I witnessed on Thursday of 1st week is rebalanced. However, with 29 men to just 5 women as guest speakers on the term card, the imbalance seems to be institutional. While this may be of no surprise, as a woman, I am hardly enthused by the prospect of dedicating 83% (ish) of my time to a testosterone-filled chamber.
Yet by simply not attending the Union, I am only adding to the gender and political imbalance that I witnessed. By encouraging others to not attend, I am reducing yet further the number of people who can dispute the generally right-of-centre male arguments. For me, distancing myself from the Union on political grounds is the easy option. Refusing to join on feminist grounds is a well-founded one. But encouraging people simply not to join won’t change anything. By not paying my membership fee I would be reducing the Union’s ability to invite women. This will do nothing to institutionally change the Union.
Our protestations have to be loud. We need to encourage other political groups to have as strong a presence in the Union as possible. From Labour to UKIP. If OUCA want to reserve seats at a debate, so they should, but so also should everyone else. Understandably, there will be students and alumni who simply will not feel comfortable partaking in Union events. As a woman and a Feminist I am well aware of this and have grappled with the same decision. Either way, our protest cannot be silent. I will simply not accept a Union who sees 5 out of 34 as an adequate number of women speakers.
By attending as many of the Union’s events as possible, you are making your voice heard and representing a different perspective. The power of one person cannot be undervalued in this situation. It is through this that we can hope to change the unequal representation I witnessed at the Debate. For those who choose to make their stand by staying away, make your protestations as vocal as possible. This is our only hope of saving the Union as a force for good.