The face value of first impressions

29th February 2008 at 00:00

Surely the big plus about being in a union is that you get to vote for the people who run it? In your job, nobody ever asks you whether you think your boss is up to the mark. In practice you are the last person they consult.

But in a union - mine is the University and College Union, the UCU - almost every post is decided by ballot, from president down to the head office rat-catcher. So why is it always such a pain when you actually have to cast your vote?

The high profile offices, such as general secretary, are no problem. There is always plenty of stuff in the public domain to help you make up your mind. Branch elections too - if you're lucky enough to have more than one person willing to stand - are fine, because you know the people concerned. If you want to know what they stand for, you can always ask.

But, oh, how the heart sinks when a fat envelope drops through the letter box and you spot the Electoral Reform Services logo - for some reason it's not a "society" any more - stamped on the front. Inside you know there is going to be reams of stuff to wade through, and at least a dozen posts to decide on, most of which you never even knew existed.

Take the UCU's current crop of elections. Eight people want to be members of the national executive committee, only five of whom can win a seat. In addition, union members must choose one of three candidates to be the disabled members' representative and three of five to represent the women members in the higher education sector.

It goes without saying that you know nothing about any of them. Luckily, they have all prepared an election address of no more than a trillion words, all of which have to be digested before you can make an informed choice.

It is at this point that the little voice whispers in your ear: why not just drop the whole thing into the recycling bin? Go on, do it; no one will know. But then, just as your hand is hovering over the bin, there is this other little voice reminding you that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were transported to Australia for the rights of miserable so-and-sos like you.

So, 16 trillion words it is then. After a while, all the candidates start to merge into one. The only thing you can remember is that they are all against the war in Iraq. How this is going to get you that extra 1 per cent pay rise from your governors is less clear.

At least in the old days you had the candidates' photographs to help you make a decision. You could start by eliminating the ones you didn't like the look of and concentrate on the rest. Then some bright spark noticed that the executive wasn't getting its quota of ugly people and suddenly the candidates' pictures were out.

In reality, I seem to remember, the debate revolved around the extent to which someone's looks were germane to their fitness for office. If they were good enough, the argument ran, it shouldn't matter a jot what they looked like.

While that view might have some appeal, just try to extend it to other areas of life. We all know, on one level, that a person's personality is not to be found in their face, but we still choose with care who we sit next to on a train. And imagine if you were being asked to vote for a prime minister you had never set eyes on.

Ours is a visual age. We can't uninvent the camera. Somehow we feel it is our right to know what the people we select look like. So, before I confine my union's democratic process to the shredder, can't I at least have a face to fix on?

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