Are you a burnt-out paperseller for an obscure left-wing sect? Fed up with traipsing around shopping centres in the freezing cold on a Saturday morning, desperately trying to flog your rag to apathetic youngsters? Running out of creative ideas to make dialectics sexy for a whole new generation? Well – your days of chairing poorly-attended meetings on the Venezuelan Revolution in SOAS are over. Chill out, get back to practising that tricky third verse of The Internationale or spend your time brushing up on your Plekhanov – because I can give you a national organisation with a thousand times more resources who are more than happy to do the job for you. Comrades, friends, brothers, sisters – may I present the leadership of the National Union of Students.
If you haven’t heard, the NUS National Executive Committee this week voted against supporting the Education Maintenance Allowance demonstration on January 26th and the next big students’ Day of Action on January 29th. To the surprise (and, bizarrely in some cases, pride) of NUS hacks, ‘NUS NEC’ became one of the most mentioned topics on Twitter as students across the political spectrum expressed a combination of anger and incomprehension.
A quick recap about how we ended up here. It seems almost like another era now, but it was only two months ago that the NUS and lecturers’ union UCU called the national demo that sparked (to everyone’s surprise) a much broader movement against the Government. The NUS were expecting about 15-20,000 to take to the streets. In the end, over 50,000 turned up. Publicly, the NUS leadership hailed this as a triumph. Privately, many of them have since regarded it as a disaster – because it represented a grassroots rebellion that was far more militant than was desirable, and impossible to control within the framework of the ‘respectable’ lobbying strategy favoured by NUS apparatchiks.
Since then, Aaron Porter has favoured directing his ire against alleged violence by young protesters rather than the police – despite illegal pre-emptive kettling, the near-killing of Alfie Meadows and a crush on Westminster Bridge that led to a warning that police tactics risked a Hillsborough-type disaster by a leading doctor. Yesterday’s NUS statement mentions “an unprecedented mass campaign from NUS that has united students, lecturers and the general public” – but the NUS has had nothing to do with it. It was the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts that took the initiative in building for the Days of Actions since 10th November 2010.
That Aaron Porter’s leadership is “spineless” and “dithering” is not open to debate. These are, after all, his own words. The standard left theory about the NUS’s woeful role in the emerging movement is that it is stacked with careerists. That it has been a springboard for career politicians who went on to betray students – Phil Woolas, Jack Straw, Charles Clarke, take your pick – is a statement of fact. But I don’t think it’s fair: many of its leading figures got involved for all the right reasons but have (small ‘c’) conservative inclinations because they grew up in a period when political struggles were at a low ebb. I’m sure most are ambitious to some degree – but hey, we all have hopes, wants and aspirations, and as long as ambition is married to some beliefs and principles, then it is not automatically unhealthy. That said, I don’t think even his diminishing band of supporters would say this about Aaron Porter.
But what puzzles me is just how self-defeating the NUS leadership is. By abdicating their responsibilities to lead students, they have left a vacuum that is being filled by the radical (or “extremist”, as they would see it) elements that they despise. Secretly, the ultra-left are rejoicing at the NUS’s surrender of leadership. They have the best conditions for recruiting young people in living memory: an increasingly radicalised and alienated generation on the one hand, and an inept right-wing student leadership on the other.
How is what the NUS doing sensible when looked at on its own terms? No wonder a number of figures of the right of the party are privately going through what, on Twitter, is known a ‘facepalm‘ moment every time the issue of Aaron’s leadership crops up.
I note that Aaron’s predecessor Wes Streeting – an example of a highly competent right-winger (which made him a formidable opponent from the perspective of the left) has made no public criticism of the NUS leadership and I won’t speculate about what he thinks privately. But he has repeatedly made clear his support for the protests and the wave of university occupations. It may have been a different matter if he was still NUS President – he would presumably have been a prisoner of other forces – but it still strikes me as tactically far more clever from a right-wing perspective.
Or take another intelligent Labour right-winger and canny political operator, Luke Akehurst. He had this to say about the student protests:
If we don’t organise and lead protest the SWP or other malign forces will. The Coalition’s policies are creating a generation of radicalised young people. We as democratic socialists need to be mobilising them, otherwise we’ll lose them to the paper sellers. If we lead protests we get to steward them and liaise with the police to maximise the chances they are peaceful. If we don’t, you get an increased chance of chaos and violence. The more of us that go on each march, the more we dilute the percentage of extremists on each one.
Well, quite. So, this is where I think the NUS’s abdication of responsibility is going to lead us:
- Boom-time for the ultra-left. What has struck me (well, inspired me even) throughout this movement is how young people with no prior interest in politics have become radicalised very quickly. For them, Aaron Porter’s name is mud in much the same way as Nick Clegg: they are both hated more than David Cameron because, well, you expect it from the Tories – but both Porter and Clegg are seen as having betrayed those who put them in power. Most of these young people will not join a sect, but some undoubtedly will, because much of what these groups are saying resonates in a way that the NUS’s right-wing managerialism certainly does not.
- A boost for ‘leaderlessness’ theories. I’ve already made clear my belief that this movement needs accountable leaders to be successful. The ineptitude of the NUS is driving growing numbers of young people to think: ‘to hell with all leaders’.
- Violence. The media myth is that violence has been perpetrated by middle-class anarchists and Trots. Having been on each demo, I witnessed the provocations and violence of police. But there is no doubt that the most militant protesters were working-class sixth-formers who believe their future is being stolen away from them by a government of millionaires, and that the only answer the state has to their grievances is to crack their heads with batons, charge them with horses or detain them for hours in the cold. Without any political leadership, this fury is going to grow – and the police response will be even more violent. If there is bloodshed on the streets in the coming months, the police and the Government will bear most of the blame. But the NUS leadership will have to accept some moral responsibility, too.
If I was a right-winger – either in the NUS or in the Labour Party – I’d be thinking of ways to get rid of Aaron Porter. And fast.