Just a joke? Louis Trup is battering OUSU machine politics

He won by a landslide.

I wrote this for Cherwell a couple of days before about what Trup’s campaign tells us about the changing nature of student politics.

The Old Quad of Brasenose is a fairly odd place to be in this week. On either side of it this OUSU election’s two most interesting campaigns can be found.

Jane4Change, the centre-left establishment slate, have set up an improvised headquarters at the top of one staircase in the spacious room of James Blythe, who’s running for a sabbatical position.

It feels like what you imagine the hub of a student political campaign would be like: there are kettles, empty crisp packets and leaflets strewn across the floor. Anxious candidates can be found tapping away on their mobiles, coordinating two dozen or so supporters who are busily knocking on doors and distributing campaign literature.

In a room at the bottom of another Brasenose staircase sits Louis Trup, the famous ‘joke candidate’ for OUSU President. He wears shorts, sandals and psychedelic Himalayan knitwear. His campaign employs no leaflets, laptops or spreadsheets – just smartphones. There is no knocking on doors. Trup doesn’t need to; his message, which oscillates between crazy and sensible, has effortlessly been pushed onto our facebook and twitter feeds.

On the one hand you have an efficient and organised campaign that’s been whirring away since Trinity term. On the other you have a third-year geographer (and his mates) who saw an opportunity a couple of weeks ago to stir things up. It is the latter strategy, if you use the admittedly simplistic measure of facebook likes, that bizarrely seems to be working: Jane4Change – 479; LJTrup4ousu4change – 538.

So, is this a case of the old-style OUSU machine politics breaking down against online and social-media based campaigning?

Sort of. To be fair to the Jane4Change campaign they’ve put a lot of effort into social media and promoting their candidates online. Before they had to abandon a suspiciously excellent website the slate had a far better online offering than Alex Bartram’s Team Alex or Nathan Akehurst’s ReclaimOUSU. But what the campaign has failed to understand about social media is that, used best, it shouldn’t simply be a medium through to hurl out set-piece candidate pitches and unexciting blog posts. It should distribute content that normal people participate in and consequently want to share.

If Louis Trup emerges victorious on Thursday evening (unlikely, but plausible) it’ll be because his campaign did understand that fact. It produced a campaign video that wasn’t just 4 minutes of excellent procrastination but, through inviting (coercing?) other students to join in made it instantly shareable. At hustings he sung songs, varying the lyrics between colleges to match their distinct quirks. It hasn’t hurt either that his campaign’s status updates have been witty and hilarious – two features not commonly associated with student politics.

In fact Trup has benefitted from old-fashioned advantages too. First, he’s something of a socialite with a wide circle of friends at various colleges. Second, he’s had plenty of uncritical coverage from student media, though the coverage in these pastures has thankfully been more even-handed. And third, his message is compelling – ridiculous and possibly dangerous, sure – but compelling nonetheless.

Of course facebook likes and retweets aren’t votes. One Jane4Change campaigner told me today that the people enthused by Louis Trup online won’t, by and large, end up voting. Maybe he’s right.

The worry for Jane Cahill – and indeed Bartram and Akehurst as well – is that colourful candidates like Trup break the effectiveness of her team’s enthusiastic slating. Students may well log on and vote in support of their local OUSU hack, say. What they have less of a reason to do is to follow through on their friend’s recommendation to vote Cahill, Bartram or Akehurst. Behind the security of a computer screen, and with the vague mental image of a funny sandal-clad loon, the temptation is to fuck it and vote Trup.


Cherwell: ‘OUSU is doomed to dullness’

Here’s my piece reproduced from last week’s Cherwell about Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), in light of tomorrow’s election:

On Tuesday polls open for the OUSU elections. Rafts of candidates are standing for coveted positions in the student union, and we’re all invited to help pick which smiley-faced do-gooders go Imagewhere. But even though it only takes about 40 seconds to go online and vote, most of us (82% last year) won’t bother.

To the extent that OUSU rests in our consciousness at all it is associated with three things: incessant emails, free condoms and David J. Townsend, in that order. Nothing much can change that, though perhaps if David J. Townsend just let us call him ‘Dave’ we might cultivate more of a cuddly affinity to the place.

This year’s contenders for President are promising to change that. Izzy Westbury’s tagline, ‘refreshOUSU’ has a certain ring to it, but it’s not at all realistic – and she knows it. The truth is that the fierce apathy students will once again show is entirely rational. That is because we are not one student body, but several (46 to be precise). Oxford is not a homogeneous mass with the student union at its centre; rather, to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke, it consists in ‘little platoons’. It is in the confines of college – that lovely space where social and academic life are messily integrated – where most of our problems arise and are then solved.

The collegiate Oxford system dooms OUSU to irrelevance. OUSU is to students what the EU is to the British. We’re totally ignorant of what happens there, though vaguely suspicious that some kind of black magic is going on, and treat enthusiasts with a mix of amusement and condescension. To push the analogy explicitly, we don’t want to be ruled (represented) from Brussles (Worcester Road – OUSU HQ) because ‘we already have our own Parliament (JCR) thank you very much!’

It doesn’t help that Oxford is replete with clubs, societies and journals that suck away energy from the official student union. Proud institutions like the Oxford Union and OUDS who long pre-date OUSU dominate university life. Consequently OUSU is a shell. It functions in the shadows, rarely coming into contact with students (the one exception is RAG, its charity arm).

This is not to say that we don’t need OUSU. Indeed its foundation is instructive in why we do need it. In 1961, the University Proctors banned the then-weekly magazine Isis from publishing reviews of lectures. Students resisted, but lacked a body through which to represent themselves to the university. OUSU was born out of that need, and it continues to fight our corner today. But it will always fail to capture of imagination or, save extraordinary circumstances, touch our lives.