Students are "fed up" with the bad press the Oxford Union is generating. Photo: Flickr
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Oxford Union speakers urged to withdraw after rape allegations against president

The women’s officer of Oxford’s student union, OUSU, and another student have started a campaign for the Oxford Union president to resign from his post after he was accused of rape and attempted rape.

Oxford students have launched a campaign to force the Oxford Union's president to resign after he was accused of rape and attempted rape. 

The Oxford University Student Union’s Vice President for Women, Sarah Pine, and second year history and politics student Helena Dollimore are asking high-profile speakers to withdraw from Union debates.

Two weeks ago, the Union's current president, Ben Sullivan, was called in by police for questioning on allegations of rape and attempted rape. He has been released without charge on bail, and returned last week to his position. He denies the allegations, and made this statement to the debate chamber:

“As you may be aware no charges have been brought against me and I have the utmost faith in the police and Crown Prosecution Service and the British legal system as a whole. I know that sooner or later the truth will prevail and justice will be served.”

Pine and Dollimore have so far contacted about 30 of the upcoming speakers, explaining the situation and asking them to pull out of their appointments at the Union. They include Human Rights Watch’s David Mepham (who has agreed to pull out), band Foster the People, American entrepreneur Julie Meyer, Newton Investment CEO Helena Morrissey, MEP and former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, actor Evanna Lynch, Baroness Lawrence, singer Paloma Faith, and New Statesman editor Jason Cowley.

Pine, who is campaigning in a personal capacity, calls it a “push for equality in the Union”. She decided to contact most of the Union’s booked speakers because they “wouldn’t have been aware of the situation and might not have been aware of the students’ feelings around it”. However, she admits that “there are differences in opinion” about whether or not Sullivan should resign.

Oxford student Helena Dollimore, who is campaigning jointly with Pine, said that she believes high-profile speakers should reconsider their commitment to the Union. “Ordinary students are just getting quite fed up at the Oxford Union and the press it’s generating, the reputation it’s generating, the message it’s sending out about our university.”

A vote of no-confidence in the president has been called for this Thursday by an ordinary Union member, but I am told that even if this passes, it does not automatically mean Sullivan will resign.

The open letter has been signed by New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.

UPDATE: Under Oxford Union rules, a member can only be suspended if criminal charges have been brought, in which case the Standing Committee can take action. See p16 of the Oxford Union rules for further details.

UPDATE, 18 JUNE 2014: Thames Valley Police confirm that the case against Sullivan has been dropped and he will not face charges.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt