Poor management of admission to The Oxford Union’s debate on Monday caused widespread disappointment among members, with some people waiting in line for three hours only to be turned away. Entry to the event was on a first come first served basis, forcing members to queue in the 5 degree temperatures hours before the doors opened in the hope of managing to get in.
No ticketing or balloting system was put in place for the debate. This was in spite of the fact that the popularity of the event was evident beforehand. José Manuel Barroso, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Sir William Cash, were named as the speakers for the event only a week in advance, and by Monday afternoon the event page on Facebook was showing around 1,600 confirmed attendees and 1,000 people interested in going. The debating chamber has a capacity of 450.
In the days leading up to the debate members were already voicing their concerns on the Facebook event page, suggesting that a balloting system might be more practical and that people could be dissuaded from future events by poor management. It was also suggested that events such as this with huge interest be held in the nearby Sheldonian Theatre, which has a capacity of 1,000 and is used for matriculation and graduation events.
Five hours before the debate, Oxford graduate Sasha Ockenden commented: “I’m not a mathematician, but if 1,000 people queue up for an average of at least an hour, that’s 1,000 hours of people’s lives wasted, most of whom are pretty busy people. Half will be particularly pointless as those people won’t be able to get in. And all of them will get cold. If there was a ballot system, it would waste almost no time at all and presumably save money on security. Any reason why not?”
An hour later, student Anna Corderoy wrote: “Yeah it’s quite disappointing to hear that the queue is already large 4 hours in advance. We pay so much for Union membership these events shouldn’t be restricted to those who have the time to cut their working day short.”
By 5:30pm, three hours before the advertised start of the debate, the queue was already stretching out of the Union, west along St. Michael’s Street, and around the corner into New Inn Hall Street, where it reached further south than the entrance to St. Peter’s College. Many of those waiting in the cold were sitting on camp chairs with their computers in an attempt to get their afternoon’s work done, and ordering pizzas to be delivered directly to their place in the queue for dinner.
The Oxford Union commented on the Facebook page of the event at around ten to six: “We are delighted that there is such interest in this debate! We’re very conscious of how cold it is outside, and are just waiting for various television crews to arrive – we will let members into the Chamber as soon as they are installed. Security will be arriving shortly to prevent queue jumping, and we hope that everyone has an enjoyable evening!” However, many members were by this stage already fuming, with talk of queue-jumping, and a lack both of organisation and of responses to their queries.
Before the debate was due to start, student Benjamin Peacock started a petition on the platform Change.org, addressed to the President and President-Elect of the Union, Charles Vaughan and Stuart Webber. It is entitled “Hold a review and referendum on the procedure for admittance to ‘Oxford Union’ events”, and calls upon the Union leadership to review the way admittance is handled for their most popular events. At the time of writing it has been signed by 130 out of its target of 200 supporters.
Around the time that the debate was due to start, a video emerged on Twitter showing several rows of seats closest to the speakers were reserved. It was shared to the Facebook event, further infuriating those who had queued for hours and not been able to make it inside the hallowed chamber.
The Union, whose membership currently costs £248, has hosted Lord Sugar, Yanis Varoufakis, Sir Elton John, Nick Robinson and Rio Ferdinand among others so far this term.