How NOT to win a Galway Student Union election in the 1990’s

There was a concise anecdote, amongst Arts students in U.C.G., back in the 1990’s about student union politics. It went something like this:

1st years:  Don’t know who runs the campus.

2nd years: Think they run the campus. 

3rd years:  Don’t give a fuck who runs the campus.

I am frequently reminded of this and a story of a friend who ran for vice president of the UCG student union in the mid 90s. I find it particularly relevant today in relation to the way the 5 or 6 major news organisations in the world tackle news.

Back then there was considerable political turmoil in the country. Bomb threats were a not infrequent happening in UCG. Some real and some just failing students pulling the piss. When I started college Sinn Fein were still banned from the airwaves.

If you weren’t too unfortunate, you might bump into the brother of an IRA man on the run, sipping pints on Dominick street. Mary Robinson was not long elected President. Exciting times.

Guys like Luke Ming Flanagan were traipsing around Galway trying to get cannabis decriminalized and an assortment of other social issues addressed.

Guys that were actually winning elections in the Student Union were promising to put an extra coffee machine on the concourse.

Like a fine wine, Ming has aged rather better than most student politicians of this time.

Anyway, our candidate in question, was a smart, popular fellow and hung around in a pretty big group of people.

As election week kicked off , being kind to myself, I would say I was a lethargic campaigner. There were much better and more talented people in the group at the business of meeting and greeting student voters than I.

Myself and another guy would spend most of our time putting up posters and talking to people we already knew. People that needed no persuasion to vote for him. Looking back now, I would say a number of us made the same campaigning mistake and did him the same disservice.

At the end of each day we’d all normally gather in the canteen to review the day’s activities.

Most people had the same opinion as I did. It was going really well. The main problem that most candidates have in an election is the same for student union politics as it is in US Presidential elections. Name recognition.

Not alone did most people know our guy. Most people liked him. Happy days!

However were we only talking to people who already knew him and agreed with his policies?

On the day of the election we cast our votes and some of the more zealous campaigners spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon trooping around the campus getting out the vote.

My campaign buddy and I unfortunately had more pressing business to hand.

We got a mysterious tip on election day.  Not to put too fine a point on it –  the tip was of the equine variety. We both agreed it needed to be followed up rigorously and immediately.

We massaged our guilt of leaving the campaign field early by reminding ourselves he was going to romp home. We hadn’t heard of a single person who thought otherwise in over a week.

So off we went to Mullholland’s bookie office on Woodquay for an afternoon of well deserved, post campaign trail relaxation.

I’ve noticed, as I’ve gotten older, the mind can play tricks with you, by conflating two different episodes into one but I am almost certain the day of the election was the week of Cheltenham that year. So I hope I haven’t done that here.

Anyway, we had 5 punts down on Imperial Call at odds of 9/2  in the Gold Cup. He duly won like the legend he was. Our returns were 27.50. For the youthful amongst you – 27.50 – could get you drunk for a day and half in Galway back then and we quickly set out to prove the point.

We rocked into Taaffes on Shop St and set about murdering pints of Guinness. In the pre-mobile phone era, there were no up to the second updates from the campus about the election. Which was a mighty relief considering the mixture of Aran Islanders, Gaeilgoirs, musicians and business men in Taaffee’s weren’t on the voting register.

At some point during the evening we managed to co-ordinate our pint glasses to be empty at the same time and return to the college. To collect the victory garlands of being the best micro campaign team of the election cycle.

The scene that greeted us on arrival was funereal. Our friend had lost.

The person that had won was a name I had not even heard of to be honest. She had never come up in conversation. In the aftermath we heard she had campaigned tigerishly on a number of issues. Her campaign team got more out of their comfort zone and talked to people who didn’t know her already.

A comfort-zone that didn’t involve trips to the bookies and evenings spent in Taaffees by her supporters. It is also not insignificant that she was the only female student running that year.

As an aside, Mary Robinson doesn’t get enough credit as the catalyst for a generation of women to get more involved in politics.

As the years slip by, I often wonder did the experience put our friend off going into politics for good. He would have made a good politician and had smart ideas.

Why is any of this relevant?

Well when I look at the world around me for the past few years I find myself on the wrong side of the argument a lot. Especially with regard to the news and how it is being reported.

The mainstream media remind me of how we campaigned in that election. Too much interaction with people who already agreed with our opinion. Looking at the world through a lense that confirmed rather than challenged our bias. Not realising at the time that this is what we were doing.

I see this a lot in reporting across the world at the moment. Sources for stories coming from government leaks that papers and TV have been using for a generation. Sources that are broadly inclined to confirm the narrative or bias of the questioner.

The recent election in the UK has seen the Labour Party fairly well torn asunder under Jeremy Corbyn. I must admit that I don’t have much personal sympathy for him or his leadership.

What interests me is the lurch hard left the Labour Party and the US Democratic Party have taken in the last few years. In the immediate aftermath of the Labour defeat a string of  Tony Blair ‘ New Labour’ people were semi-rejoicing and wearing their ‘I told you so’ faces. The media duly obliged them and presented the result as an opportunity for the old brigade to re-takeover the Labour Party.

I must admit I think the opposite is true.

The Labour Party have 500,000 grass-root members who have kept Jeremy Corbyn in power. They will decide the next leader as well.

I doubt they will choose a 29 year old Blairite. If indeed you could find one.

At the moment the UK electorate look at Labour like 90’s Galway students looked at Ming Flanagan. In this election cycle they settled for the promise of a warm cup of coffee.

Experience tells me though, that Ming Flanagan was the one, who eventually found a way to become an electoral rockstar.

Today’s extremism is very often tomorrows norm.

Sometimes it makes sense to move towards the consensus but sometimes you have to take a risk.

Risk that the consensus will move to you. I think that is what these Labour grass roots will do.

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