If you’ve been following the debate which followed last term’s referendum to ban Israeli produce from USSU stores, then very little of what follows will be news to you. If not, I’ll include a quick summary. Last term’s referendum was voted in by around 10% of the student body, with just over half those votes in favour of a boycott on Israeli goods. Following this, and in response to proposed bans on bottled water and tuna (which were discussed and indicitavely approved by the AGM), a group was set up on Facebook with the satirical title, “Ban EVERYTHING on Sussex campus”. The purpose of this group was to poke fun at the Union’s increasingly pervasive “ban culture” and later to organise a counter-movement in the name of consumer choice. In the two months or so since then, the group’s message boards have been dominated by arguments centred on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, with anti-boycott members being labelled as Zionists and racists and being forced to go on the defensive to defend their own characters. In the midst of all this, the group’s original message has been lost.
Despite the controversy, the “Ban EVERYTHING…” group, or “BanSoc”, as they are known to their core members, have managed to put together a petition for another referendum to overturn the boycott of Israeli goods. There are a number of reasons given for this – the poor publicity of the original referendum and allegations of intimidating behaviour by campaigners to name but two – but the operative point is that the Constitution states that when a petition with over 150 signatures has been submitted to the Union, “polling should normally be between 3 and 5 weeks (excluding vacations) of the request being considered”. The proponents of the referendum have already been told that it will not be held until week 9 this term, over twice the maximum time allowed by the Constitution. The reasoning was to take pressure off the sabbatical elections, which is fair enough, and this was accepted by the proposers of the referendum.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but no. A motion is being raised at an emergency meeting of the Union Council this Friday the 15th to block the referendum entirely until next year. In effect, Council will be voting on whether or not to ignore the Constitution. The outcome of this vote could well have powerful ramifications for the future of democracy at Sussex. It has already been accepted that the Constitution requires some major alterations where the Union’s democratic processes are concerned, but if Council are capable of ignoring the Constitution when it suits them, then what’s the point in even having one? Of course, time will tell what the Council decides to do, but the fact the question is being called at all is a significant cause for concern.
At a time when the Union’s democratic practices are already being called into question, with accusations of poor publicity and unfair bias against students in the sciences, the Union can ill-afford another blow to its credibility. At a time when the Union is under attack by brutal funding cuts from the University management, we can ill afford to be anything but united. Vote whichever way you will in referenda (and please do vote – nothing speaks unity like landslide decisions), but the Constitution must be allowed to stand, and when under attack it must be defended. The last thing we need is for the University to accuse us of being unconstitutional, because that would truly be a disaster for USSU.