In the aftermath of Exeter’s record breaking NUS referendum, both teams have admitted that the campaign took a hostile turn towards the end – with Leave campaign ‘Exiter’ complaining of verbal abuse, overspending and voter coercion, and Stay campaign leader Laura-Jane Tiley acknowledging that “both teams put feet out of line” in what eventually became a “toxic” campaign.
Both sides agreed the rules should have been clearer before the vote began. “Because it was done through Student Ideas, the rules have been extremely unclear,” Exiter campaigner Stephen Hawkins told Exeposé.
“To begin with, we thought it was played by Sabb election rules, and we’ve been playing by these rules.” This would restrict teams bringing in external parties, yet NUS officials – including newly elected president Malia Bouattia – and Sabbs from Plymouth University were “shipped in and paid on expenses” by the Stay team, Hawkins claimed. “In fact most days there have been more campaigners from outside the University than inside.” Hawkins’ comments echoed those of Exiter campaigner Charlie Evans, who previously took to Facebook to complain that Stay had “bussed in about 12 NUS Officers,” with travel expenses allegedly not taken off the campaign budget.
“It’s just a bit sad that such clear breaches are taking place without ramification,” Evans lamented.
But Tiley refuted these claims. “The NUS is an independent organisation .from the Stay campaign and also from the Guild, and obviously they want Exeter to be a part of them,” she said. Asked whether Stay campaign or Guild money had been used for these visits, she responded: “Absolutely not. We only have a £60 budget and the Guild is neutral, so both those things would be completely breaking rules.”
A Guild spokesperson confirmed that external campaigners were welcome in the referendum, but denied that any Guild or campaign money had been used to bring NUS reps to Exeter. “No substantiated evidence was found to suggest overspending within campaign rules,” they told Exeposé – adding, however, that regulations didn’t cover external organisations and volunteers.
“There are rules established for how each campaign should conduct themselves,” they said. “Although both sides raised concerns, cast-iron evidence often wasn’t strong enough for support staff to act upon.”
“No substantial evidence was found to suggest overspending.” – Guild spokesperson
Further confusion surrounded the teams’ campaign methods. “At the beginning we didn’t think we could get people over to vote on our stall – and then we realised the other team were doing it so we started,” Tiley told Exeposé. “There was also uncertainty as to whether we could go up to people with laptops,” she added, “and apparently we’re allowed to do that as well.”
This caused greater tension between the teams. “We’ve had Stay campaigners knocking on people’s doors late into the night, thrusting laptops at people and making them vote on the spot,” Hawkins said. Evans also complained on social media that the ‘Exiter’ Facebook page had received numerous messages from “students concerned by [Stay’s] intimidation tactics.” But these claims were “deeply concerning” and “not true,” Tiley told Exeposé. “It’s my responsibility to make sure my team aren’t doing that,” she said, adding: “I’ve sent clear messages throughout the whole two weeks that this is not OK.”
“Obviously I’m accountable if people have stepped out of line, but I would also argue that both teams have put feet out of line at points. So I think it’s a wider problem within the whole referendum, rather than individual teams.”
“I would argue that both teams have put feet out of line at points.” – Laura-Jane Tiley, Stay campaign leader
Additional Exiter claims came in the form of verbal abuse complaints. “We’ve had people calling us Islamophobic, racist, sexist – every word under the sun – to denigrate our campaign,” Hawkins said. Claiming Exiter had made “at least a dozen formal complaints” to the Guild, he added: “almost every single time we’ve been told they can’t do anything about it.”
“We’ve had people calling us Islamophobic, racist, sexist – every word under the sun.” – Stephen Hawkins, Exiter campaigner
Describing Tiley as a “very nice person,” Hawkins acknowledged the abuse wasn’t from the core Stay team. “The issue is, I don’t think they’ve kept enough people in line,” he said. “They’ve not made sure people have been playing fair, and things have spiralled out of control.” “I am unaware of the comments myself, but I would like to apologise if they have been made,” Tiley responded. “If students are concerned, please come and speak to me and we can try and deal with this.” “To me, these comments point towards a wider picture of what has been a toxic campaign,” she admitted.