Voter apathy is the enemy of change at the RIBA

There are some moves for reform at the RIBA, but voter apathy in the face of inertia at the institute is holding back change, says Kunle Barker

Earlier this year, I learned a new word: hegemony – it refers to the leadership or dominance of one social group over others. As a concept, I find it fascinating as, unlike other dominating power structures, hegemony requires a degree of consent from the subordinate group.

The implication is that we may not even be aware that we exist in a hegemonic social structure. To quote a line from one of my favourite films, ‘the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’.

With the new RIBA presidential election now underway, the consequences of hegemony are at the forefront of my mind. Change seems to be in the air, but this air is tinged with mistrust and suspicion.


It is clear that some at the RIBA want reform; landmark rule changes such as allowing student members to vote and removing the requirement for presidential candidates to have been involved in RIBA governance demonstrate a willingness to embrace reformative change.

However, it is troubling to read about the more recent rule changes, which were retrospectively applied to affect the current election. This rule excluded newer members from voting in the current election, which, under normal circumstances, seems perfectly reasonable.

As stated in the RIBA’s formal response to the AJ article on this matter, it is standard practice in many organisations to have such rules in place. Yet there is still much displeasure over this new rule.

In my opinion, this crude and poorly timed rule change is bad for an industry that claims to champion transparency and inclusion. It could also be perceived as an attempt to suppress votes.

History is littered with examples of voter suppression, from 1890s America, in which southern (and some northern) states introduced poll taxes to deter poorer black citizens from voting, to holding the Brexit referendum over a Glastonbury weekend.


Ben Derbyshire has commented that he thinks the rule change is just bad timing, and he may have a point. It is impossible to know exactly what the motivation behind this rule change was, except to say that in my experience, bad timing and coincidences seldom favour minorities.

More important is the general perception that architecture is a forward-thinking industry, led by enlightened individuals. I mean, they couldn't be hegemonistic, could they? It’s the Old-Etonian, blue tie-wearing, avaricious types that are the problem, not architects.

Does this stop architecture as an industry from scrutinising itself? Is the true power of hegemony the fact that the people it affects and the people it benefits are sometimes equally unaware that it even exists?

There is no finishing line for change; there is no top score; just because things have changed doesn’t mean they shouldn’t continue to do so.

We have three great candidates for the presidential election and a diverse and compelling list of professionals, all with a lot to offer. I have read many commentaries on this election, but there is one point that no one seems to be making: rule changes aside, the biggest enemy of democracy, and therefore of meaningful change, is voter apathy.

There are around 40,000 RIBA members eligible to vote; approximately 15,000 are students. In the last presidential election, Simon Allford received 799 more votes than Sumita Singha in the first round of voting. Turnout was lower than in recent years, with only 13.2 per cent of eligible members voting (6.6 per cent of students and 17.2 per cent of chartered members).

So what’s my point? Well, it's simple; if you want social systems to change, you must vote. If only another 4 per cent of students eligible to vote did so, this would almost certainly render the exclusionary impact of any rule changes null and void.

We can argue ad nauseam about the effects and motivation of the recent rule changes but aren't we better served exercising our democratic rights? It would have taken 1,299 more votes for Valeria Passetti (who polled last) to poll first in the first round of voting in the previous election – that's less than 3 per cent of the people eligible to vote.

So, my message to all RIBA members is to research the candidates, read their manifestos and vote. Whoever you think is the best candidate, please, engage in the democratic process. These recent rule changes could have resulted from hegemony, or just bad timing, but if you all vote, that will all be irrelevant, as democracy will invariably win the day.

Kunle Barker is a property expert, journalist and broadcaster

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  1. It might be worth asking the question – why is apathy such a problem? I’ve worked on three campaigns and the most common answer I get from people when I challenge them for not voting is the same – ‘it won’t make any difference’. The other reply I consistently heard was that the RIBA is mainly a ‘London thing’. The demographics make it extremely hard for a non-London candidate succeeding. Recent structural and cost-cutting changes to the regions coupled with the huge spend on 66PP haven’t done a great deal much to dispel that notion, but I suspect that this is well known. Invariably the no.1 concern for architects I know is about fees. This is complex and difficult issue that would require a sea change in direction for the profession and its institutions. I’m not sure there’s an appetite yet for such change but time and inflation will tell. My own experience has taught me to focus on our community – where I can have a positive effect.

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