Cambridge dons learn a lesson in virtual democracy

A failure by Cambridge University administrators to understand online campaign techniques may result in the defeat of their preferred candidate for the next university chancellor - Lord Sainsbury of Turville - and victory for an unlikely popular challenger - the thunderous, bewhiskered actor and voiceover legend Brian Blessed.

Next Friday and Saturday, the university is hosting the first election to the Chancellorship since 1847, to succeed Prince Philip who is retiring after 35 years in the lifelong post.

The university's preferred - and, initially, only - candidate is Lord (David) Sainsbury, the former science minister in the Labour government. However in a protest move against Sainsbury's supermarkets, local shopkeeper Abdul Arain managed to garner the 50 nominations needed to enter the race before the deadline for nominations on 17 June. A subsequent Facebook campaign led by Seth Thévoz, a Cambridge graduate, former House of Commons researcher and currently studying for a PhD at Warwick University on "The political impact of London clubs, c.1832-1868", saw Blessed enter the fray, closely followed by left-wing barrister Michael Mansfield QC,nominated by a group of Cambridge academics.

The chancellorship is an apolitical role largely acting as a figurehead, a fact which has led many to see Blessed as a genuinely strong candidate.

The race has now moved online, with several memorable YouTube videos recorded of Blessed's feelings for Cambridge, and the actor's campaign was the first to create a full website. Abdul Arain has a Facebook presence and a few days ago launched a Twitter feed, @AbdulChancellor ; Michael Mansfield has released his own YouTube video, blog and position statements focusing on the future of education funding in the UK; and David Sainsbury has launched his own polished Wordpress site. The university itself has created a matter-of-fact web page carrying procedural information.

Anthony Zacharzewski, democracy analyst, founder of the Democratic Society and himself a Cambridge MA holder who intends to return for the vote next week, said today it was "a bit surprising that the information I have had from my college and the university don't give links to any of the candidates' websites. The university is not pushing out information in a way that allows people to make a reasoned choice, and this probably plays into hands of the Blessed vote."

While the electorate is not formed of younger students - "undergraduates and BA graduates do not have a chance to vote so these are not giggling drunk 19 year olds" - it seemed likely that the online campaign will favour "the 'wouldn't it be fun' kind of vote" behind Blessed, Zacharzewski said.

Although the university centrally has embraced the web in recent years, its efforts have tended to be commercially focused, he said. "It's either 'come and study here' or 'give us your money', if you're an alumnus. There is no site if you are a graduate where you would want to go and linger."

The overall result has been that the election process has fallen out of the hands of the university, Zacharzewski said. "The election could have been an opportunity to build something that was a place for all graduates to come together and look at different candidates, and that would have been foundation for something more involving. But I get the feeling the university administrators didn't expect any of this to happen and I suspect they are in denial."

Another area where the administrators might want to look at modernising their attitudes is the electoral system, he said: to take part, voters must turn up in person at the Senate House in Cambridge and wear a gown (provided). With the likely interest in this year's race threatening to cause gridlock in the city centre, future administrators may decide postal or even online voting is the way to go.

Brian Blessed
Michael Mansfield QC
Abdul Arain
David Sainsbury
Cambridge University: Election of the Chancellor