Opinion: Time to argue about consensus

In this piece SU consultant Nick Smith starts an argument about our focus on consensus

Innovation is at the heart of what students’ unions do. We call ourselves a movement and so it’s to be expected that we should move, change and look at new ways of doing things. At this year’s Membership Services Conference there was much talk about power, representation and democracy- so I was expecting plenty of innovation in this space.

There was lots of exciting practice being displayed, but there was a thread of conversation which disturbed me. This unchallenged and repeated assertion about the nature of decision making mirrors that which officers and staff have been saying while I’ve been delivering training to SUs over the last year.

Phrases appeared like “We need a new way of doing politics”, “We should be making decisions by consensus” and “Decision making should be a circle”. I’m not entirely sure what this last point means (has decision making been a rhomboid before now?), but I do wonder about how we are approaching conflict and resolution. Are we always being honest about the place – I would argue the rightful place – of conflict in students’ unions?

In my view conflict ought to be at the heart of our unions- by design and encouraged to be there. The officer who so fiercely advocated consensus decision making presumably didn’t think that the election he won should have been decided through a series of conversations with his opponents until they all agreed which person was best for the job. I’m a Catholic but I don’t think that we should be choosing our sports officers in the same manner that we choose a Pope. When I used to return elections, I’d often remind candidates in their briefing that the vast majority of them would lose and that the act of running would for most people be their opportunity for developing skills. This served to help them think about what sort of positive campaign they wanted to run but was also honest that for most candidates in a healthy democracy election night is a personal disappointment.  If you are an elected officer you are a child of conflict.

An excellent session about citizenship versus consumerism discussed how we can engage others in policy formation through discussion and strong values. The point I raised was that our officers aren’t usually aiming to influence the general public in our campaigns, but our college and university staff, local councillors and governments. While we may argue that these hierarchies shouldn’t be based on opposing views and winning arguments, at present this is the state of those institutions. Having spent time in recent years as a university assistant registrar I deliver a training course on university governance and meetings for student officers, and I ‘ve seen sabbs struggle to grasp how power plays out in a university Senate or Council. They could workshop an idea with post-its but not gauge who had control of the agenda and how they could push for change through these structures.

Students’ Unions are complex and full of passionate people. We are controversial and pushing boundaries at all times. Ideally you should have to duck as another paradigm shift in representation takes place whenever you enter our buildings. In this context of controversy and challenge we need resolutions and to take stances. A vote creates clarity. Whatever else occurs by way of policy forums or electronic suggestion boxes, you still need at some point to create conflict and decide on a stance. NUS’ policies have long been based around formative discussions at Zone Conferences and then a final, controlled point of conflict at National Conference. A combination of consensus and then setting up divisions to argue out their points.

We also need to worry about the trend towards replacing deliberation and debate with electronic suggestion boxes. On the one hand if an idea is a good one even asking students to campaign to get 50 upvotes is daft- why not just do it? And letting a student get that far when a Trustee Board might overturn it is just daft. But more importantly, almost all ideas work in their own context- 24 hour libraries and free printing are both good ideas, but asking students which one they would choose is the democratic decision. A student that wants microwaves in the SU might need to be introduced to a student that is committed to green impact to battle it out, rather than just garner 50 upvotes only to have the Trustee Board overturn them. And these methods are really poor at the kind of sophisticated analysis that is often required on wicked problems- which policy is supposed to solve.

More worrying perhaps is the fact that appealing to consensus can be about a diminishing of responsibility from leaders or even about politics itself. There are times when we can’t agree to disagree. There are times when leaders have to lead. A mantra I often use is that we don’t hold elections for easy jobs – there’s always an aspect of students unions that is about resolving competing priorities and the allocation of limited resources. Some years societies win, sports teams lose. When we use political capital pushing for mental health services we might not spend our time and efforts on safer communities. We often serve students better by doing one thing well than 2 things poorly and we need clarity to choose which one of those we do. We aren’t honest with students if we suggest that there is always a third way.

I am not advocating that all our decisions should be made in pugilistic exchanges of 2 minute speeches in a general meeting most akin to a bear pit. But I do think we need to be very careful with the suggestion that all conflict is bad and that gathering ideas out of their context and deciding by consensus is the way we should be deciding policy. I’d be happy to keep arguing against.


Posted in Opinion.


  1. Good and thought provoking article – thanks Nick. We know that conflict is an important part of good decision-making. When we do team development training we focus on diversity of teams on the basis that different backgrounds and different ideas help strengthen and test key decisions. So I think you’re absolutely right that healthy conflict, debate and disagreement are all really import for good decision-making and therefore good governance and democracy.

    I think part of the problem that people are often trying to solve when they talk about consensus decision-making is that far too often conflict and decision-making aren’t ‘done well’. We see politicians (UK and global) point scoring, focusing on personality not issues and emphasising points of difference to create win-lose situations. Some of this isn’t new but it does feel as though there’s been a decline in collaborative (not consensus) decision-making over the past few years where people try to create win-win situations.

    If you take the brilliant bipartisan work that Stella Creasy did on free abortions for women in Northern Ireland. Part of the reason this stood out is because she engaged politicians from both sides of the floor around an important issue to create change – and that seems to practically hardly ever happen. Politicians (and I include student politicians / leaders in this) need to re-learn / remember how to talk to people that hold different opinions, identify points of commonality and compromise to create change. I agree that we shouldn’t be obsessed with consensus decisions, and perhaps need to focus more on collaborative approaches, whilst accepting that healthy conflict still creates more robust outcomes?

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking article Nick. I absolutely agree with the view that conflict is a really important part of effective decision-making. In team development training we talk about the need for diverse teams (Belbin etc) – on the basis that people from different backgrounds, and with different ideas, make better, more robust decisions.

    I think part of the problem that people are trying to solve when they talk about consensus decision-making is that far too often conflict isn’t ‘done well’. We watch our elected leaders (global and UK) focus on points of difference in order to point score and create win-lose outcomes. Of course this has always happened, but it feels like over recent years politicians (and I include student politicians / leaders in this) have lost the ability to build bridges, engage people with different political viewpoints and create win-win outcomes through collaboration and compromise.

    If you take Stella Creasy’s brilliant work around free abortions for women from Northern Ireland, one of the things that made this stand out was that you just don’t see many public examples of our leaders collaborating across the political aisle to create change. I think students’ unions have a role in helping student leaders develop and apply those skills – and perhaps we should be focusing on collaborative, not consensus, decision-making?

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