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Why Aaron Porter had to go

It’s official: Aaron Porter will no longer be the British student movement’s official figurehead. For only the second time since 1969, a NUS President will not serve a second term. To date, the NUS Presidency has proved a fairly pain-free launchpad for a glamorous political career that ends in a Labour Cabinet: ask Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and Phil Woolas. Yes, you can expect a bit of sniping from the left, but in the past NUS Presidents have relished it while being easily able to marginalise radical elements. But Aaron Porter chose the wrong time to be a Blairite at the helm of the student movement.

If the joint NUS/UCU demo on November 10th had been half as big, Porter would still be in office. But it lit a torchpaper. No-one on left or right had a real sense of the burning anger on campuses and in sixth forms across the country. Unlike previous generations, many of today’s young people feel they have no future; they feel lied to and betrayed by a cynical political elite; and they believe they’re up against a Government with no mandate.

Many at the top of the NUS hierarchy, including Aaron Porter, despaired of the forces they had helped to unleash. The radicalism was simply not containable by a NUS leadership that favoured lobbying ministers over cups of tea to militant demonstrations. A wave of occupations shook campuses, accompanied by a series of protests – the like of which had not been seen since the 1960s.

Aaron Porter neither liked or understood what had happened, and embarked on a number of tactical blunders that would transform him from student leader to student hate figure.

Firstly, he spent more time condemning so-called student ‘violence’ (in reality, minor vandalism on the part of a few, desperate youngsters) – even as police used ruthless tactics that could easily have killed someone.

Secondly, he refused to provide any NUS support for the series of protests that followed the November demo. It was farcical: the biggest student actions in more than a generation, and the official student movement had nothing to do with them. Astonishingly, his draft manifesto, leaked days before the announcement to Harry Cole, even had the audacity to claim credit for this new movement.

Thirdly, he betrayed the university occupations that had re-energised the student movement. He came to the UCL occupation, admitted he had been ‘spineless’ and ‘dithering’, and pledged support for university occupations: moral, financial and logistical. It never came, and students facing court action and potentially tens of thousands of pounds worth of fines were outraged. They had been hung out to dry.

Fourthly, a leaked memo revealed the NUS had suggested cutting maintenance grants to poor students rather than hiking top-up fees. The right-wing press were delighted. Here was proof that student protesters were really a bunch of middle-class ‘rebels’ who were willing to use their sharp elbows against the poor if it would preserve their privileges.

Finally – and this really was the final straw – an internal NUS memo urged students to stop protesting against fees and described elements of the Government’s package as ‘progressive’. Vince Cable bragged about this on the BBC’s Question Time, giving Aaron the kiss of death.

It is hardly surprising that all of these things taken together provoked a furious backlash against Porter’s leadership. Sometimes, this took rather unpleasant forms, as Ellie Mae has pointed out.

But, confronted with a radicalized student grassroots, other leading NUS ‘moderates’ could not ignore these factors either. Another year of Aaron’s deeply unpopular leadership would clearly provoke an increasingly bitter civil war in the student movement. The NUS could no longer offer credible opposition to the Government’s proposals. Leading NUS figures believed that there was no other option but to get rid of Aaron.

As his support ebbed away, Aaron Porter realized that the game was now up.

It would be interesting to speculate how Aaron’s more strategic predecessors (Wes Streeting and Gemma Tumelty) – both from the same political wing of the NUS – would have dealt with the new movement. My sense is both would have attempted to at least engage with the emergent forces. Interestingly, when Cable mischievously mocked the NUS, Streeting tweeted ‘Facepalm’ (“an expression referring to the physical gesture of striking one’s own face in a display of exasperation”) and Tumelty echoed with an “Ouch”. Aaron wasn’t just a right-winger: he was an incompetent one.

That’s the context in which NUS Scotland President Liam Burns threw in his hat in the ring, and Shane Chowen, the Vice President for FE, is likely to follow suit. Left-wing activist Mark Bergfeld is already in the race.

Bergfeld is the only candidate who will support free education, rather than the graduate tax which is in itself an assault on the principle of progressive taxation: that people should be taxed according to what they earn.

But, as the NUS is currently structured, Bergfeld cannot win among delegates. The race could well be decided by how his supporters use their second preferences.

Questions need to be asked of Liam and Shane about how they will engage with the new movement. Liam is no lefty, but he is clearly more likely to do so in any meaningful way. Chowen is quickly emerging as the anointed successor of Porter and the continuity candidate favoured by the NUS leaders who have, until recently, been uncritical of Porter’s direction of travel. But any support for Burns should not be automatic.

As for Porter – well, he will clearly try and portray himself as a martyr who took on the ‘hard left bully boys’ in an effort to resuscitate his political career. I hope that he’s unsuccessful. His major weakness is less his Blairite politics – more that he doesn’t seem to have any.

Overall, this whole episode is a lesson about the power of mass movements. The NUS leadership was out of sync with a dramatic radicalisation of its student base, and had to change as a result. Trade unionists and Labour party members: take note.

2 Comments

  1. Matty says:

    Article seems spot on. Wes Streeting and Gemma Tumelty have just posted on Labourlist complaining about the “bullying” of Wes Porter and totally ignoring the politics.

  2. Matty says:

    Apologies for typo should have read “complaining about the “bullying” of Aaron Porter” of course

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