Memes, stripy hats, selfies, stickers, students standing outside the library, endless Srdja posts on the St Andrews crushes page. All of these things made the presence of Srdja Popovic’s Rectoral campaign unavoidable during the elections. But who was the student masterminding this move to “Start the revolution?” The Saint caught up with Mr Popovic’s Campaign Manager, Jamie Rodney, to find out.
Mr Rodney, a third-year English Literature student from Glasgow, is an active member of the St Andrews’ Amnesty International Society. Inspired by the organisation’s work, he decided to get involved in high school and went on to join the St Andrews committee during his first year at university.
Before the election kicked off Mr Rodney had chatted with a couple of his friends in Amnesty International about approaching a candidate to put forward for the elections, but the group had come to no concrete decisions.
That was until he saw a YouTube video of journalist Nick Cohen interviewing Mr Popovic. This sparked Mr Rodney’s interest in the activist, and he decided to read his book Blueprint for Revolution. While reading the book Mr Rodney wondered whether Mr Popovic’s approach could be used successfully within the St Andrews community.
“My main takeaway from the book was how clearly and lucidly Srdja laid out his points. He made fairly complex concepts and ideas seem incredibly obvious, which made the prospect of fighting for a better St Andrews seem less of a daunting one.”
To his surprise, when Mr Rodney reached the end of the book he found that Mr Popovic had included his email address with an invitation to get in touch with him to discuss interesting projects or ideas. Mr Rodney decided to email Mr Popovic – asking him to run for Rector – and the campaign was born.
Mr Rodney explains that there were three main things that made Srdja their candidate of choice. Firstly, he was willing to take up the challenge. Secondly, he “has arguably the most impressive CV of anyone to run for Rector” and thirdly, his day job involved working with students and young people to empower themselves, which “made us think he was perfect for it.”
Although Amnesty International initiated the project, Mr Rodney points out that it quickly became a much more inclusive movement.
I think our campaign was by far the more effective one
“It started out as a group of us within the Amnesty International society looking around for a candidate, and then once we settled on Srdja it turned into a broader project that wasn’t really limited to a society.”
The initial stages of the campaign took place over the summer, so Mr Rodney faced the challenge of recruiting a team over Facebook.
“We ended up having more than 70 people in the Srdja for Rector group chat. Recruitment was a little awkward because it was mainly done over Facebook over the summer, and it’s hard to get people to commit to things.”
“I think I must have messaged something like 200 people asking if they’d be willing to support Srdja, without that much of a success rate,” he adds.
Mr Rodney explains that the inclusive recruitment approach extended to the creation of the manifesto, which drew heavily on the complaints and worries of current students.
“Our manifesto was put together through hundreds of conversations between team members and different St Andrews students. We literally just got people on the campaign team to talk to their friends, find out what the main problems people had, and then tried to work out what the easiest solutions for those problems were.”
In terms of the campaign itself, there is no denying that whatever Mr Rodney did was successful. Mr Popovic secured 2183 votes, which amounted to 62 per cent of the vote, and meant that he beat his competitor, Willie Rennie, to the post by a massive margin. Mr Rennie, the MSP for North East Fife, received 1083 votes, while Re-open Nominations received 220 votes.
But why was the Srdja for Rector campaign so successful? Mr Rodney suggests that it was partly to do with Mr Popovic’s credentials and clear message.
“With all due respect to Willie Rennie (who I actually think would have made an excellent Rector), Srdja was by far the most impressive candidate in terms of what he’s done and achieved. Secondly, I think Srdja’s message, about how he was going to fundamentally change the office of the Rectorship from a semi-ceremonial one to one that actively helps students solve their problems.”
Nevertheless, Mr Rodney acknowledges that the effective techniques employed by his campaign team also played a massive part.
“I think our campaign was (again, with all due respect to Willie Rennie’s team) by far the more effective one-we were more energetic, we spoke to more people, our social media operation was stronger, and our ground game was better.”
When asked about the memes that filled the Srdja for Rector Facebook timeline, Mr Rodney explains that “memes were obviously a big part of the campaign because that’s the kind of thing students like. They’re also a really effective way of making a serious point in a simple, memorable and funny way.” He admits that diehard Willie Rennie supporters probably weren’t converted by the memes, but believes that they “helped to create a lot of heat and light around the campaign, which kept people interested in us.”
With regards to the hats, selfies and chats outside the library, Mr Rodney explains that they “were all about creating a presence, making ourselves noticeable.”
“We knew that because of Srdja’s outsider status and the lack of knowledge among students of what a Rector does, we’d need to work extra hard to stay relevant, and that was our way of doing so,” he adds.
And the “Let’s start the revolution” slogan? “Basically we thought that it boiled down Srdja’s entire appeal- his message, his past achievements, his offer to students-in as few words as possible, and in a really memorable and striking way.”
The planning that went into the campaign paid off, and the response that Mr Rodney and his team received was – on the whole – rather encouraging.
“Obviously, lots of students had concerns about and criticisms of Srdja, and I was pretty surprised by the size of our margin of victory.
But even so, the response we got from people was overwhelmingly positive- one of the most common responses we got was a variation on ‘I’m voting for the guy with the unpronounceable first name.’”
Just to clarify for everybody The Saint asked Mr Rodney how you actually pronounce Mr Popovic’s name, and he explained that it is in fact “Sir-ja Pop-oh-vitch.”
3,486 students voted in the election, and as Mr Rodney points out “obviously, turnout could have been higher.” Nevertheless, he tells The Saint that he is “especially proud that we managed to pull in voters and campaigners from demographics that don’t usually participate in elections.”
“A lot of our best campaigners were people who had previously had zero engagement in this kind of thing, and I think that translated to a lot of people who voted for us. That’s revolutionary in itself in my opinion,” he adds.
Now that Mr Popovic has been elected as the 53rd Rector of the University of St Andrews, Mr Rodney is looking to get on with delivering Mr Popovic’s campaign pledges.
To kick-start this movement Mr Rodney proposed a motion to support the manifesto aims of the Rector elect. The proposal gained over 60 student signatures. However, on 17 October the student governance body voted overwhelmingly to reject the proposal at a meeting of the Joint Councils, Student Representative Council (SRC), and Student Services Council (SSC).
Memes were obviously a big part of the campaign
“We proposed the motion because we felt that coming to some kind of understanding to allow a better working relationship between Srdja and the Union was a priority. That’s what we’re hoping to put across more effectively with our second motion,” Mr Rodney said. “I’m disappointed it failed, but it’s meant that we now have time to work on a better motion, which we’re in the process of drafting and which I’m confident will pass,” he adds.
In spite of the failure of the proposal, Mr Rodney has high hopes for the future.
“Our first priority is going to be on housing, as mentioned in the manifesto. We’re going to put together a database of all the landlords in St Andrews, so students can have a better idea of who they’re buying from, and so landlords can be incentivised to provide a better, cheaper service.”
Mr Rodney says that reintroducing a rail link to St Andrews is also high up on his priority list, and that the process has already been started.
“We’ve been speaking to people from STARlink to discuss tactics for making that happen- it’s becoming quickly apparent that all the pieces are in place for us to have a rail link, the only missing ingredient is pressure from the student body to make it happen. The first step to creating that pressure is going to be education- there’s a lot of ignorance about the campaign for a rail link among students, and we’re hoping to correct that.”
And how will Mr Rodney improve awareness of this issue? Unsurprisingly, he has already thought the whole thing through.
“The timing of Srdja’s election is quite fortunate, because it coincides with the creation of a new society called Students for a St Andrews Rail link, who we’re going to be working very closely with in the future. We’ve also got some awareness-raising stunts in the pipeline but I can’t tell you too much about them unfortunately.”
During the election some students were sceptical about whether the rail link plans were realistic. But Mr Rodney assures The Saint that the plan is feasible and that the team have already drafted a time frame for the delivery of the proposal.
“Ideally, we’d want the rail link to be delivered, or at least be under construction by the end of Srdja’s tenure as Rector, though depending on a number of factors it might be earlier than that.” When asked about how he thinks Srdja’s rectorship will be different to Catherine Stihler’s, Mr Rodney explained that Mr Popovic’s approach will have a much greater focus on the students themselves. “I think that Srdja’s approach to the Rectorship will be much more student-focussed, and much more engaged in the student body than that of Mrs Stihler. Obviously, he lives in Belgrade so he might be of less use at cutting ribbons and attending ceremonies than Mrs Stihler was, or a figure like Willie Rennie could have been, but he’ll more than make up for it by helping to equip the student body with the skills it needs to grapple with our problems.” His more immediate aim for the future is finalising a campaigning team. In his interview with The Saint Mr Popovic placed a heavy emphasis on how the students will be the ones campaigning for the issues, and Mr Rodney has already begun to build up a team for Mr Popovic’s tenure as Rector, and hopes to have “at least 30 committed activists by the end of Independent Learning week.”
From sending off the initial email to hosting Mr Popovic in his flat during the campaign, the whole thing has been a bit of a whirlwind for Mr Rodney. Reflecting on what it was like to have a political activist staying in his flat for the week Mr Rodney says, “I still can’t quite believe it actually happened, but then again that’s the way I feel about most of this campaign.”