The St Andrews University Conservative and Unionist Association, or Conservative Society, has been rocked by allegations of foul play in its recent annual general meeting (AGM) as members of the committee stand accused of “rigging” the recent election. These allegations have exposed long standing and bitter divides within the Society.
Among the allegations levelled against current Society president Callum Purves and chairman Ian Donnell are: influencing the results of the AGM; having new members signed up to the society in order to vote for Mr Purves and against his opponent, Marcus Buist; not requiring that these new members pay membership fees; Mr Buist not having access to the membership list; and creating a hostile society environment based on political divides and with anti-Catholic sentiments.
Mr Purves and Mr Donnell have denied all the allegations.
Commenting on the allegations, a spokesman for the Scottish Conservative party said: “If a formal complaint is made to the party, we will happily investigate it.”
Mr Donnell and Mr Purves, the outgoing and incoming presidents of the Society, have been accused of attempting to manipulate the results of the AGM by senior figures in the Society including Michael Green, the outgoing vice-president who also served as returning officer for the election. Mr Green, speaking to The Saint, said that he believed both Mr Donnell and Mr Purves had abused their positions in order to ensure the election of Mr Purves as president, whom Mr Donnell had endorsed.
Mr Green also said that their actions could be characterised as “rigging” the election in their favour.
Mr Donnell and Mr Purves also hold the positions of National chair and National secretary, respectively, of Conservative Future Scotland (the youth section of the Conservative party in Scotland).
They then told me that this other candidate was in fact very undesirable, and that he would bring the Society into disrepute and that he held very unorthodox views.
One allegation of tampering has come from two students. One of the students was asked to join the Conservative Society in spite of no prior affiliation, and the other was signed up without being asked. Both students were approached by members of Mr Purves’ campaign team for the sole purpose of voting for him and against the other presidential candidate, Marcus Buist.
One such student, Ludo Stewart, told the The Saint that he was contacted by a member of Mr Purves’ campaign team a week before the election asking him to join the Society and vote against Mr Buist. “A member of Callum’s team sent me a message asking if I would do them a favour and sign up for the Tory Society so that I could submit a postal vote.
“They then told me that this other candidate was in fact very undesirable, and that he would bring the Society into disrepute and that he held very unorthodox views.
“The main point that they drove was that the Society would terminate my membership after [the AGM] so that I wouldn’t have to be a part of a Society whose views I didn’t agree with.”
Mr Stewart confirmed that he had “never been involved in the Society or been to any of their events” and that “no mention of money was made” during his interactions with the member of Mr Purves’ team, despite the Conservative Society generally requiring a membership fee to become a voting member.
He said that he felt mislead. “I had been told to vote because of extreme circumstances, but it turned out to be completely normal circumstances.
“Additionally, I didn’t pay my membership fee – I didn’t realise there was one.”
Mr Stewart added that when he was approached by Mr Purves’ team they referred to Mr Buist as a “fascist” who would bring the Society to disrepute.
Another student, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that they had been signed up without their knowledge and without having to pay a fee, for the purpose of voting for Mr Purves.
“I was not a member of the Society this whole year and I was unaware that I had joined the Society. I was told by a member of Callum’s team on Sunday 17 April that I was a member and that my membership fee had been paid for.”
The student also said that they were then asked many times the following day by a member of Mr Purves’ team to vote for Callum Purves over Marcus Buist. This student was only informed that they had been signed up to the Society two days prior to the AGM, after the imposition of a moratorium on new members. It is unclear whether their membership was put in place prior to its imposition.
I was not a member of the Society this whole year and I was unaware that I had joined the Society. I was told by a member of Callum’s team on Sunday 17 April that I was a member and that my membership fee had been paid for.
In response to these allegations, Mr Donnell said, “All members who joined the association through the year have joined knowing the aims of STAUCA. We did see an increase in members joining as the AGM approached. A number of people asked to become members as they were worried that the behaviour of some candidates would damage the association.
“As far as membership fees are concerned they will have been received by our treasurer, either directly from new members or representatives who collected membership fees from them. Our accounts are tightly audited by the Union.”
Mr Purves also denied signing up people solely to vote for certain positions.
Mr Buist, speaking to The Saint, attributed the actions taken by other members of the Society to a divide that emerged within the group prior to and as a result of the AGM.
“At the end of first year, it was clear who the two candidates were probably going to be, as was the presence of a largely healthy rivalry that occasionally had nastier spots, but which would always calm down and return to normal,” he said.
Mr Buist said that “problems” within the Society started at the beginning of second semester and intensified through February and March. He went on to say that there began to be “a hostile environment as both sides [began] to think about the AGM.”
Mr Buist said that while “some of this was genuinely healthy, pleasant banter”, the Society could described as divided along ideological grounds, between liberal and non-liberal members of the Society.
Another student, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, “Before the AGM, we were a very happy Society. There was a mix of people who had quite strong conservative views and then people with more liberal views, but there was a place for everyone, and it was a place where you could feel safe, where you could feel like you had friends.
“In March it became obvious that the overwhelming support for Callum Purves over Marcus Buist went beyond endorsement. It seemed to turn into a public hate campaign to settle private matters. I think this was unbelievably selfish and hostile, to use this AGM as a means to settle personal scores.
The student also said that they believe that some in the Society “wanted to make it their own club and fill it with their friends and that they [didn’t] care about what was best for the Society.”
Mr Donnell refuted accusations of a hostile environment in the group. He said, “I respect each member of the association I lead, regardless of their views. I have enjoyed our debates and have tried to build an association which holds a wide range of events and speakers to accommodate every ideological persuasion. From ardent libertarian Madsen Pirie to local MSPs Murdo Fraser and Liz Smith. Our wide-scope of opinions is something of which I am proud.”
[pullquote]In March it became obvious that the overwhelming support for Callum Purves over Marcus Buist went beyond endorsement. It seemed to turn into a public hate campaign to settle private matters.[/pullquote]
Mr Purves agreed with Mr Donnell, saying, “I have always encouraged debate and discussion within the Association from people across the conservative political spectrum. We have had many passionate debates over the past year but are fundamentally united in our desire to see greater Conservative representation in Scotland. The key theme of my presidential speech at the AGM was my hope for us to be a more inclusive Society that celebrated difference of opinion.”
However, Mr Green did say that he believed tension had been created within the group, particularly by Mr Donnell, “It became all about Ian and what his vision of the Society was.”
A further divide in the Society came as the result of the decision to propose a new constitution. The new constitution created a second vice-president, added the role of chairman, [which Mr Donnell now holds] and increased the powers of these and the other existing executive officers.
Mr Buist said that the changes to the constitution represented a “centralisation of power” within the Society.
Mr Green said that he believed the new constitution was only proposed to give extra positions on the committee for certain people. He told The Saint, “The goal from the very start was to get rid of certain committee members.
“Ian didn’t really have a role for himself, so he created this role of ‘chairman’ for himself. So the whole exercise in re-jigging the constitution was basically just to give jobs for certain people.”
Mr Donnell has also been accused of viewing the email ballots of individual members and using this information to canvass members.
Mr Green told The Saint, “The major thing for me was the fact that Ian still had access to the [official Conservative Society] email account.” He claims this would have allowed Mr Donnell to access the email ballots as they were sent in.
[pullquote]It became all about Ian and what his vision of the Society was.[/pullquote]
Mr Green went on to say that this meant that Mr Donnell was able to “chase up people that he thought were potentially going to vote for Callum but hadn’t voted yet.”
He added, “Obviously Marcus didn’t have that luxury because he didn’t have access to the email account. That was the biggest disadvantage from my perspective that I could see.”
Mr Stewart, who had been approached to sign up for the Society by a member of Mr Purves’ campaign team, said that he was later asked if he had sent in his email ballot. After he confirmed that he had voted, the member of Mr Purves’ team said, “but for Marcus.”
Mr Stewart said, “I assumed that [votes for] AGMs were meant to be anonymous, but apparently they knew about my vote.”
In regards to the member of Mr Purves’ team that approached him, he said, “We haven’t spoken since then.”
A further dispute that arose during the campaigning period for the AGM was over access to a full list of members for canvassing purposes. Mr Buist told The Saint that he requested, but was refused a list of members from Mr Donnell and Mr Purves, who had access to a full membership list in their capacity as president and secretary of the Society respectively.
Mr Donnell, speaking to The Saint, said “Given that the membership list contains details extending to email and residential addresses of all members, a decision was made that in the interest of data protection the list would not be distributed beyond those who would ordinarily hold it.
Mr Donnell and Mr Purves also denied using the membership list for the purpose of canvassing members on behalf of Mr Purves.
[pullquote]I assumed that [votes for] AGMs were meant to be anonymous, but apparently they knew about my vote.[/pullquote]
However, both Mr Buist and Mr Green have accused Mr Donnell of using the list to influence members who Mr Buist may not have known about and was therefore unable to contact.
They cite an email which sent by Mr Donnell to many, though not all, members saying, “Dear All, As the outgoing President of STAUCA I recommend to you the following committee to be elected at our AGM.
“If you are minded to agree with my recommendation, then please feel free to copy and paste this list of nominations and also to include the sentence following, in regards to the constitution (everything in red). Please send in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The email endorses Callum Purves for president as well as various other people for the committee’s other roles.
Mr Donnell told The Saint that this email was only sent to people he personally knew to be members. However, Mr Stewart confirmed that he received this email without knowing Mr Donnell personally.
Accusations have also been made that some members of the Society contributed towards an anti-Catholic sentiment within the Society. One member, Stephan Maier, said that at times there was a “general sentiment” of anti-Catholic feeling in the Society saying that, for instance, anti-Catholic remarks were sometimes made.
“I’m not someone who feels very uncomfortably easily myself, but I believe someone would. People would easily be put off by that immediately, I completely agree with that.
“Certain people would just feel unwanted, as if their opinion wouldn’t matter because of other factors that weren’t actually related to that. It would put off people from joining or attending.”
In response to this allegation, Mr Donnell said,“[The Society] has many Catholic members, my own academic sons are Catholic Celtic supporters from the Central belt [of Scotland], both of whom have served on committee and received my fullest support. I have not and would never behave in a way that would deter them or any other Catholic member of the association.”
James Bundy, a practising Catholic, who now serves as secretary of the Society also commented on the issue, saying, “As a Society, STACUA is also not ‘anti-Catholic’. If it were, I as a Catholic would not be serving on the executive committee.
Continuing, he said, “As a member who attended 95 per cent of events this year, I saw nothing that could be considered ‘anti-catholic’ at events. Ian was a fantastic president, and made our association open to everyone. Callum did a fantastic job at supporting Ian as secretary and I think Callum will continue the good work Ian has done. If they were ‘anti-Catholic’, I would not have attended 95% of events, never mind sit on the executive committee.”
In a statement to The Saint, a spokesperson for the Societies Committee said, “The committee is currently reviewing the election and allegations and will take action as found appropriate.”