The Oxford Union declares itself “institutionally racist”: How did we get here?

It appears manifestly reasonable to suggest that the Oxford Union faces a serious, deep-rooted and institutional democratic crisis. Indeed, if the decision of the recent tribunal is upheld, we will have consecutive unelected Presidents rightly sparking ire and disdain amongst the membership. After all, the very basis of democracy is founded upon free and fair elections, with a colloquial consensus that candidates which garner the most support should take office.  

Yet presently it would appear that the necessary condition for winning the presidency is not a mandate from the members but rather the support of the powerful Returning Officers, who are able to weaponise the rulebook to their advantage. Beyond this wider democratic concern, I would like to highlight the grave injustices present in the vexatious case against the duly-elected Ebrahim Osman Mowafy, particularly relating to the shambolic proceedings which have proved characteristic of the maliciously designed tribunal aimed solely at removing him from his democratically-elected post. 

Alarm bells should have been ringing from the outset, as it has already been well-recorded that two of the three candidates in the HT24 elections faced significant additional challenges in their campaigns. This includes the attempted disqualification of candidates at the request of the current Returning Officer, who at this point still was able to wield significant power within the realm of RO-world, holding the position of Deputy Returning Officer. Ultimately of course, Mr Osman-Mowafy was able to overcome the series of obstacles laid out for him in his quest to become the first Union President of Arab descent, when, after a count lasting over 19 hours, he was declared the winner.

What followed instead can only be described as a witch-hunt, with a series of increasingly outrageous events demonstrating the unfit nature of the current Returning Officer to carry out his responsibilities.  

As has unfortunately become customary, it was subject to the results of a tribunal, which presided over cases against both Mr Osman-Mowafy and another candidate, ultimately finding them both guilty of making ‘vexatious claims’ and fining them both a standard £100. At the time, however, this was the extent of the punishment, and the initial tribunal upheld the results of the election, declaring him to be President-Elect. Had the process stopped here we could consider it a reasonable course of action, with all parties investigated but ultimately cleared of serious misconduct and as such be able to continue with the normal protocol. What followed instead can only be described as a witch-hunt, with a series of increasingly outrageous events demonstrating the unfit nature of the current Returning Officer to carry out his responsibilities.  

Firstly, it should be clarified that the most recent election-tribunal had the task of reversing a decision made by an earlier tribunal which had a King’s Counsel (a very senior lawyer) as one of its members, and which had previously vindicated Mr Osman-Mowafy. This second one specifically was considering a case between Mr Osman-Mowafy and the Returning Officer, who was his opposite number in proceedings. In view of this, it appears peculiar that the Returning Officer has the power to decide who shall sit on the Tribunal Board; effectively able to choose the judge at their own trial. Stranger still were the names proposed by the RO, including for example Stuart Cullen, someone who the RO claimed that he could personally vouch for (which can be found in the minutes of the Standing Committee). He does not appear to be the greatest judge of character given that Stuart Cullen has been suspended by the Tory Party over sexual assault claims.

This entire ordeal took place after initially refusing to release the names of those who would serve on the appellate board. While it was voted against for Mr Cullen to sit on the board, the fact remains that the entire makeup of this second tribunal was determined by the Returning Officer, causing a power imbalance and serious issues of bias which were raised by Mr Osman-Mowafy weeks before the tribunal actually took place. This comes after he is on the record saying that he “wanted to eat Ebrahim’s ballots”,  which he is later said to have regretted saying.

This merely highlights the gross negligence of duty associated with the Returning Officer, who for some reason appeared unable to set aside his personal distaste in order to conduct his responsibilities as Deputy Returning Officer at the time. Additionally, within a week of taking office as RO, he sought to change the rules regarding punishment for the very offence which Mr Osman-Mowafy was alleged to have committed, moving from a discretionary punishment to mandatory disqualification. Given what was to come, in retrospect, this bizarre use of power now clearly was part of a concerted effort to remove Mr Osman-Mowafy from his post as President-Elect. 

The attempt to cover up the process and stop people talking publicly infringes on the core principles of the Union, which prides itself on being a ‘bastion of free speech’

Fast forward a week and the Returning Officer found himself at the centre of yet another scandal, again centred on his inability to act in accordance with his role, although this time with the additional charge of having lied to members of the society and its staff (which can again be found in the minutes of Standing Committee). At this point, it has been suggested that an RO with a track record and the future potential to mislead other members of the Standing Committee, and then covering such behaviour up, would be most troubling.

As a result, the Standing Committee was able to successfully move a motion bringing a Corporate Complaint against the Returning Officer, due to abuse of position. It should be exceedingly obvious by now that the second tribunal was nothing more than a set-up by a partisan official, aimed at ousting a democratically elected officer who enjoys the support of not only the broader membership but also the governing body and ex-Presidents, many of whom condemned the tribunal before its judgement had even been released. 

Over the course of the second tribunal, there were numerous additional instances indicating a disregard for Mr Osman-Mowafy and a lack of willingness to ensure a fair outcome. To begin, the tribunal added three additional charges against him without providing any details beforehand, robbing him of a chance to prepare a rebuttal, which is completely against the standard procedure. Additionally, many of his arguments were dismissed without proper consideration or evidence.

Due to the bias on display, including insults and threats against him and his representative, when Mr Osman-Mowafy chose to excuse himself from the tribunal, it fell to the President and the Senior Officers to act as mediators, apologise to him and seek his advice on how best to undertake a just process. Unfortunately, rather than heed any of the suggestions that he would make, the tribunal chose instead to bring another charge against him, namely that he was acting unreasonably. Time and time again this appellate board was seen acting in a manner totally out of order unsurprising given that it was convened solely to create a pretext for Mr Osman-Mowafy’s removal.

As I am sure we are all aware, the results of the decision made by the tribunal resulted in Mr Osman-Mowafy’s disqualification, as well as suspending his membership. Quite how this is an appropriate punishment for daring to challenge the ROs escapes me particularly when you consider that another presidential candidate initially faced similar charges, yet inexplicably escaped without the same scrutiny and process as Mr Osman-Mowafy.

Should someone belonging to an ethnic minority wish to climb the ranks they are still subject to additional obstacles and racism which have no place in the society.  

Even more concerningly, the attempt to cover up the process and stop people talking publicly infringes on the core principles of the Union, which prides itself on being a ‘bastion of free speech’. What precedent does it set when members are unable to freely discuss its own elections and the ensuing action, much less make sense of the opaque, racist and unfathomable conclusions reached by a group set out with the sole purpose of finding an innocent man guilty?

This unfortunate case simply appears to emphasise two unfortunate truths; Returning Officers wield disproportionate levels of power and that there is still institutional racism within the Union. For a society which prides itself on free speech and democratic elections, vesting such power in the hands of so few appears to be at odds with the very essence of what the Oxford Union stands for. This poses a particular problem when the individuals that take on such positions are unfortunately unfit for office, as has been repeatedly proven the case with certain individuals that have recently made up the Returning Officer team.

Beyond the current RO, there is of course also the unnerving fact that a separate member of the RO team is alleged to have made openly Islamophobic remarks, a stain on themselves, the RO team as well as the society at large. Given the hard work, dedication and competence displayed by many Muslim members of the committee, it is unacceptable that such comments were ever made, let alone swept aside and hidden from public view. It characterises an unfortunate sentiment that still befalls many within the Union; whilst it can certainly be a welcoming space for ordinary members, should someone belonging to an ethnic minority wish to climb the ranks they are still subject to additional obstacles and racism which have no place in the society.     

The only heartening element of the entire ordeal has come extremely recently, pertaining to the reaction of members of the committee and the society at large. The outpour of support for Ebrahim, the unification against Islamophobia, and the general camaraderie and desire from most people to condemn the process has been a beacon of hope in an otherwise dark time and has rekindled hope that no institution is unalterable.

Regardless of allegiance in the upcoming TT24 election, candidates were unilateral in expressing their outrage at the events over the last few days and were able to set aside their electoral differences and show solidarity. It is important that this issue continues to unite the members, transforms the Union, and most importantly puts the members back behind the wheel; driving the change for a more transparent, accountable and engaging Union.

Image Description: The Oxford Union building

Image Credit: Gaspard Rouffin