The Case Against Slates

By Jake Olenick, Mar 26, 2019 5:03

Jake Olenick (ex-Treasurer) here opposes the principle of electoral pacts (i.e. “slates”) in student societies, in particular their nature as oligopolistic and exclusionary, with few of the benefits that many have argued them to have.

A slate is a group of people running for office who avoid competing for the same roles, agree to vote for each other, campaign for one another, and – once they have one person for each role – exclude and oppose others contesting them. Gut instinct, I believe, opposes such behaviours. As such, I will argue – presenting first the arguments in defence of slates, then counter-arguments to each point – that the initial gut instinct is evidently correct.

Defences of slates broadly fall into the following three categories: 1) that slates are generally good, 2) that slates are inevitable and/or not necessarily bad, and 3) that even if slates are bad, banning them is worse.


Slates are not generally good:

It is argued that slates allow good teams to stay together. However, I believe that working well together does not give you permission to influence elections if people prefer diverse, somewhat antagonistic leadership: ignoring that preference is endorsing oligarchy over democracy. Indeed, consensus-building and working with opponents are generally pre-requisites for effective governance, without which you end up with leaders like Theresa May!

But perhaps slates are like political parties, grouping candidates together according to shared policies. Of course, they aren't: slates are created and destroyed over a few weeks. They have no party membership, and there is no ideological/electoral coalition which they embody. In the SU, I have heard that slates derive legitimacy by simply mirroring national parties. I doubt this, and would not want it to be true: Oxford is politically diverse, its SU should be too. Meanwhile, in the Oxford Union, they do not even try to have significant policy differences, with hollow, interchangeable names like “Ignite,” “Renew,” etc. Worst of all, however, are Oxford's political societies, where the whole point is that everyone has the same basic policies, be they Left, Liberal, or Conservative, and so no ideological distinctions could occur between slates.

 

Maybe slates at least inform or engage voters? I doubt this: all I've ever learned from slate members is who's bought off whom with promises of prestige. Individual candidate manifestos (which are regulated to common standards) convey information much more effectively and fairly. Slates are, therefore, not generally good.

 

Slates are neither harmless nor inevitable:

Some argue the following: some student societies have hundreds of members, but friend groups are naturally smaller than this; slates are just extensions of friend groups, and therefore permissible. In my opinion, this argument is weak on a number of levels. Firstly, while it is true that people form friend groups, committees needn't be friend groups, as already touched on above. Furthermore, slates are hardly ever actual friend groups. After all, a Secretary and Treasurer (for example) are almost certain to have spent years getting to know each other, and yet will often run in opposing slates for President. Slates don't even resemble friend groups: they exist not to include people who get along, but to protect people from perceived threats. This is clearly immensely harmful.

It's also worth noting that in my two years on OULD committee, I haven't been friendless, but I've never been on a slate, and have even rejected invitations to join ones. It is therefore entirely possible not only to avoid slates, but even to be somewhat successful while doing so. Slates are therefore neither harmless nor inevitable.

Banning slates is better than leaving them be:

What remains in defence of slates are therefore the “prohibition doesn't work” style of arguments. While not wholly effective, they do pose some interesting problems.

 

One argument is that banning slates will push them underground, where they are even harder for outsiders to join, and also less easily recognized by the public. True, underground slates are harder to join, but they are also less necessary to join. If there are only underground slates, then they cannot advertise on Facebook, nor campaign with catchy slogans. They may be so ineffective that most candidates never even think about joining them. Indeed, underground slates are secret to everyone except their target audience. If I say to you “I would love for you to vote for my 'close personal friends,' Alice, Bob...” then you know that I'm on a slate and can simply ignore, or – better still – report me.

 

It is highlighted that the Union did once ban slates, with unintended consequences: people would break into rooms and hack computers seeking evidence of slates. An analogy might be the prohibition of alcohol in the United States, which had severe unintended consequences for organised crime and political corruption. However, slates are political corruption. Furthermore, alcohol prohibition produced a synergistic spiral of organized crime: alcohol monopolies funded weapon purchases, which preserved alcohol monopolies. There is no such synergistic crime spiral in banning slates.

Of course, there are unintended consequences. Some people will break into rooms, but such people are (1) rare, (2) so exceptionally depraved that it is better that they commit their crimes and be punished as soon as possible, and (3) only a danger to their allies in depravity. The person whose room is broken into is not some innocent store owner being held up by the mafia, but much more like the boss of one mafia family being raided by an opposing mafia family: the victim is merely being forced to confront the risks that they have knowingly signed up to. Fortunately, most university accommodation has surveillance anyway…

           

Finally, it is pointed out that universally broken laws provide opportunities for overzealous despots to pick favourites and distribute favours. My solution here is simple: let these cases be adjudicated by people external to the current dramas of the organization (perhaps Alumni or University staff): while selective enforcement is a risk under would-be dictators, is not a risk under impartial external parties.

 

As such, “prohibition doesn't work” arguments fail to rescue slates: prohibition would significantly cripple slates, open up space for slate-less candidates, and would only present serious problems for those guilty of forming slates.

 

Conclusions:

In summary, I believe this leaves no defence of slates undemolished: they are not generally good, and aren’t even morally neutral, so it is better that they be banned than not. They stifle competition, distort democracy, and arbitrarily exclude people. Banning them would make our societies better places.

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