Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment


9:20 am - February 17th 2011

by Ellie Mae    


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Let’s remind ourselves of the catalogue of disappointments commonly known as Aaron Porter’s career as NUS president.

He failed to support union members facing legal action, he opposed most demonstrations his members wanted to hold, and yesterday it transpired that he allegedly praised the changes to higher education tuition fees as ‘progressive.’

So far, so contemptible. It’s little wonder a motion of no-confidence was raised against the NUS’s El Presidente, and quite right too.

Union leaders that fail in even their most basic duties should be held to account. The NUS should do more than simply arrange student discounts at HMV, and if it takes Porter’s unceremonious departure to make that happen, I’m all for it.

But here’s the rub. The NUS’s fondness for impotent bureaucracy over real action is a long-standing problem, not one that has been initiated by Aaron Porter. Of course Porter has risibly embraced this tradition, but the NUS doesn’t begin and end with him.

So it’s a huge shame to see some protesters transforming him into some sort of hate-figure; pelting him with eggs, chanting abuse, and kettling him when he arrives at university campuses.

This sort of behaviour, directed so narrowly at one person, is unconstructive at best; bullying at worst.

I’m not a wallflower who would like direct action to be eschewed in favour of a strongly-worded note in the parish newsletter, but there are limits. Even if accusations of careerism, right-wingery or, in his own words, dithering spinelessness are accurate, Aaron Porter is nevertheless a human being.

Intimidating and degrading him is unwarranted, unpleasant, and in my opinion, is a worse reflection upon the perpetrators than on Porter himself.

This is particularly the case for those students that decided to kettle Porter. Students are rightfully condemning of kettling as being of dubious legality, dangerous, even an abuse of human rights. Yet Glasgow University Occupation sent tweets to various people last week, proud of the fact that they kettled Porter when he arrived on campus.

To me, the message of this action is that kettling is acceptable in some circumstances, i.e. when it’s done to someone we don’t like. Are these really the moral undertones students should be carving out for their movement?

I am reminded of Gandhi, who said ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ If students really do want to see a world free of aggression and defined by compassion, then the best place to start is with themselves.

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About the author
Ellie Mae is an occasional contributor. She is co-editor of New Left Project. She is on Twitter and blogs here.
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Reader comments


Chanting *racist* abuse according to him.

Porter must go, but we must fight to reform the NUS as a whole.

Within my guild, I am pushing for our executive and NUS delegates to draw up reform proposals.

I agree completely. If students want to be taken seriously they should behave in a way that makes it possible to do so.

On the other hand let’s be sanguine and note that when a major student leader decides to equivocate on an issue like this (key issue for base, emotive, etc) then it is not surprising that he/she finds him/herself needing protection from The people he/she is supposed to serve.

Ellie: damn right.
Cjcjc: solely according to one anonymous bloke who was trying to sell a story, and explicitly not according to Porter. If the chap in question didn’t make it up compltely, then it’s most likely based on the (very easy) mishearing of “you” for “Jew”. Refers.

Was the “kettling” proposed by the Glasgow occupation really comparable to the kettling employed by the police though?

That aside, I agree that its possible to overpersonalise this. There is clearly a problem with the NUS leadership and executive as a whole, which as you say is deep-seated, long-standing, and goes well beyond Aaron Porter. Removing Porter is no more than one important first step in the greater task of dealing with these substantive issues, and turning the NUS into what its supposed to be – a body that fights hard for the interests of its members. That first step would perhaps be more easily achieved if the arguments were less personally focused on Porter and more generally focused on the behaviour of the NUS as an organisation. I suspect that students would find those sorts of arguments more persuasive than Porter-bashing.

That said, Porter is a grown adult who wasn’t forced to make the poor decisions he has made. We shouldn’t get fixated on him, but its entirely correct to hold him personally responsible as an elected representative who has failed in his task of representing us. It shouldn’t be nasty, but it should be powerful and robust.

It will be hard to reform the NUS, it always falls back to the same problem: most of its members leave after three years.

@4:

“… it is not surprising that he/she finds him/herself needing protection from The people he/she is supposed to serve”

Yes, it damn well is!

Why should anyone need protection from people who have a different opinion? Unless said people believe that FORCE is legitimate …

These are students you are talkin about. And if the problem is most of the members leave after three years it should be fairly quick to turn the ship around with a bit of democracy no?

I wish people would stop using the word ‘kettling’ when they mean illegal detention – whether by police or protesters.

It’s an example of euphemism-creep.

The point of actions like kettling him is so he experiences what the students he is supposed to represent are experiencing. While his is safe and cosy with police escorting him away from the nasty public, protesters are in danger of being beaten so badly by the police that they end up in hospital. Aaron Porter claims that he represents students, he claims that the NUS is a democratic organisation, he seems to think he is doing a good job – Aaron Porter needs a reality check.

Dave W

I doubt it was comparible, but what are we saying? That a bit of kettling is ok in certain circumstances? If students really do view kettling as abhorrent, then they shouldn’t be doing it themselves.

In a way, it’s not even about Porter – it’s about the sort of ethics upon which this movement is founded. Like I say in the post, how valid is a movement that doesn’t embody the values it is fighting for?

AM
If you were kettled and intimidated, you know how horrible it is. You shouldn’t be doing that to another person. It’s as simple as that.

13. Chaise Guevara

@ 11 am

“The point of actions like kettling him is so he experiences what the students he is supposed to represent are experiencing. ”

Oh, I see. So two wrongs make a right, even if the person you’re attacking isn’t the person who actually wronged you in the first place?

To complain about people you agree with being kettled, then go and kettle people you disagree with, is absolutely pathetic and shows that the people involved are just knee-jerk agitators with no clue what they’re protesting about. It’s also as good a way as I can think of to push potential supporters away, because nobody wants to be associated with hypocritical idiots.

Unless it was a publicity stunt that only lasted a couple of minutes… but then that wouldn’t achieve the stated aim, would it?

Unbelievable.

Actually on a personal level what most puts me off trying to take part in actions is comments like some of these today. I don’t want to be called pathetic or seen as some kind of embarrassment to the student movement because someone out there might not agree with the way I choose to express my discontent, whether that is handing out leaflets, chanting or face to face with the person who is supposed to represent me. There is no ‘correct’ way to protest, a lot of people are reacting according to gut and circumstance. It seems such a shame to dismiss that as easily as some people here seem to.

Or we can be a bit more radical/sensible about this and just give up on the NUS. It seems obvious to anyone involved in real politics (rather the student politics) that the NUS’s claim to legitimacy is totally false. Just because an organisation happens to exist, and happens to believe that it fulfills the role of a national voice for students, it doesn’t mean that it does. Indeed, there is nothing much representative about the NUS, not least since their constitutional reforms a couple of years back that massively cut the number of delegates at national conference, such that it’s now basically just attended by sabbatical officers and not students at all. The NUS is a dead dog, but nonetheless it does have certain influences that need to be addressed by those of us who do anticuts work, and the fact is that the greatest of these influences is not policy or the NEC but Porter as a media figurehead. Like all good figureheads, let’s pile the boat high with rotten corpses, engulf it with flames, and send it off on a trip to Valhalla, where they won’t get involved with our politics.

I agree with all of that Jacob, but I think you can achieve everything you talk about without personal intimidation. In fact, I think it’s important that they ARE achieved without personal intimidation.

14 . am

It’s niot about chanting face to face though, is it? I’m criticising behaviour that those same students identify as unethical in other circumstances.

Ellie – If they briefly surrounded him and carried out a peaceful protest against his behaviour then plainly that’s very, very different to holding him in extremely cramped conditions for hours on end, refusing to allow him to go to the toilet, etc etc, as occurs with actual kettling. One is a symbolic act causing minor inconveniance, the other is tantamount to violence.

I’d like to know more about what happened before I could make a judgement on this specific incident. But it seems to me that it would at least be hypothetically possible to “kettle” Porter as a form of protest in an entirely justifiable way which did not violate the ethics of the movement in the way you describe. It could be done in a way that didn’t physically intimidate, but merely caused him political embarassment by highlighting his growing list of failures.

Of course the students did not kettle Aaron Porter. They Gheraoed him.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gherao

20. Chaise Guevara

@ 14 am

“I don’t want to be called pathetic or seen as some kind of embarrassment to the student movement because someone out there might not agree with the way I choose to express my discontent, whether that is handing out leaflets, chanting or face to face with the person who is supposed to represent me. There is no ‘correct’ way to protest, a lot of people are reacting according to gut and circumstance. It seems such a shame to dismiss that as easily as some people here seem to.”

I’m not criticising you for the way you choose to protest in itself. I’m criticising the sheer hypocrisy of supporting kettling for people you dislike while opposing it for those you support. I’m not dismissing your protest, I’m condemning your bullshit.

Let’s be clear that Porter was “kettled” in massive inverted commas. I wasn’t there, but I’d be surprised if they had him locked on the spot for 10 hours without access to food, water, the toilet, etc. It sounds like it was a glorified touch-rugby scrum.

It was obviously a symbolic act and didn’t have any of the negative features that we normally associate with the kettle. (Massive loss of basic human rights, etc) This was really no more ‘kettle-like’ than a UK Uncut action that involves a human chain across the front of a shop.

The point about turning him into a hate figure when its really the NUS that is at fault is perhaps better, and I do agree that there needs to be more focus on the NUS as a bureaucracy than just pretending its a problem with personalities. But let’s not forget that despite the many weaknesses of the NUS, Porter does actually have the power to turn the whole thing around. He could at least propose reform to the NUS. He could use existing NUS structures in positive ways. If this wasn’t true then why would we care who the NUS president was? Clearly they have the ability to change things.

There’s also the wider issue though – the NUS Presidency is seen as a stepping stone for political careerists climbing the ladder of the Labour Party. Wes Streeting, the last shower of shit to inhabit that position, went straight into a Labour council seat at the next available by-election a couple of months after he stepped down. If we really want a fighting NUS, flushing out the careerists is necessary. The organisation won’t be able to actually represent students as long as it’s beholden to the interests of the careers of its officers.

The only realistic way to do this is to make life absolutely unbearable for careerists who inhabit the position. Make an example of Porter, or anyone else who might succeed him doing a similar thing. Make sure that anyone who is thinking of climbing the ladder takes one look at the NUS Presidency and instantly decides that it’s not worth the trouble, that it’s more likely to ruin their career than it is to propel them to dizzying heights. They’re acting in a self interested way, and this is the most simple way to appeal to their self interest.

The focus on Aaron Porter here may seem unfair and personal, but he’s a public figure abusing a public position. Making sure that he leaves the position as a hugely unpopular figure is in the best interests of anyone who wants a reinvigorated NUS.

Dave –

I think you have to view it in the context of a campaign against him that is growing increasingly personal.

I’m sure there is a huge difference between the action of those students and the actions of the police, but if that’s the case, why boast about ‘kettling’ someone? Especially on Twitter without context? I feel like it automatically gives kettling more legitimacy.

The same students also created a hashtag called #porterwatch, the aim of which seemed to be to report on where Porter was to enable similar protests.

As a side note, I’m quite amazed at the number of people (on Twitter mainly – not here) who have interpreted my argument as some sort of apology for Porter’s career. I would have thought opening by listing his failures would make it pretty clear that I don’t defend his actions in the slightest. Apparently not.

There is a world of protest between groups of people holding their leaders to account, and new methods of policing which risk killing people simply for excercising their right to protest. To equate the two is to lose your moral compass. Or perhaps never to have been kettled.

#porterwatch was after he went missing in Glasgow, he ran off campus and nobody knew where he was. To try and make it seem like it was some kind of effort to co-ordinate people into hunting him down is to misrepresent the situation.
You don’t want people to focus their attentions on Aaron Porter but you seem to focus your dislike on one particular group of students in Glasgow – that doesn’t seem any fairer.
This is leaderless action, it doesn’t conform to a standard, it’s not uniform in execution and it’s sometimes going to be a bit rough around the edges. But it’s effective, empowering and local.

The focus on kettling is disingenuous.

The bigger problem is the egging and the harassment. Is this what left-wing politics is reduced to now – if people don’t like someone’s position they throw eggs at him and force him to run away?

Very fucking mature. And what pissed me off more was all these lefties laughing at what happened and making jokes about it. Laurie Penny tweeted in ‘lolidarity’.

It’s not just immature and makes them look like a bunch of idiots – it’s profoundly undemocratic and is basically bullying. I bet if people were running a campaign to throw eggs at Laurie Penny because they disagreed with her, she wouldn’t find it funny. I bet neither would many else. I certainly wouldn’t walk away, but then I’m not a very pacifist kind of guy.

David Wearing: That aside, I agree that its possible to overpersonalise this.

I see gates bolted and horses running a mile off. Have you been asleep for the past few weeks?

This whole episode has turned into a joke. If you don’t like the guy – disaffiliate from the NUS or campaign to vote him out and get someone else in.

But if harassment and bullying (and its tacit approval by a lot of people) is what left politics is reduced to – then lefties don’t deserve to come near any sort of power.

So much for NUS and their “safe space” then.

I’m sure there is a huge difference between the action of those students and the actions of the police, but if that’s the case, why boast about ‘kettling’ someone? Especially on Twitter without context? I feel like it automatically gives kettling more legitimacy

Its just as obviously satirical/ironic reference as the “Big Society Revenue & Customs”. Does anyone seriously think that they were attempting to do to Porter what the police did to student protestors? Clearly not, so its not clear how it could give legitimacy to actual police kettling.

The same students also created a hashtag called #porterwatch, the aim of which seemed to be to report on where Porter was to enable similar protests

But why in principle shouldn’t they protest against him personally? He’s their representative, his record is abysmal and its their democratic right.

As I say, it shouldn’t get nasty or physically intimidating. And maybe it did. But I think you’d need to back up these criticisms of the Glasgow students a bit more before what you’re saying about their actions becomes convincing. From the information you’ve given here, I can’t see the problem

I’m astonished this is thought worthy of an earnest discussion. *Of course* intimidation and verbal abuse is not right. Good grief.

28

Some people, prominent people, think it is. So it should be addressed.

Dave –

I don’t think it’s valid to compare this with BSRC. The point of that was to create something in direct contradiction to the government’s immoral actions – the moral mirror image, so to speak. It wasn’t to imitate the same behaviour but direct it at a person you deem to deserve it. That legitimises it.

We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, but I think sending out tweets apparently bragging about kettling someone is not very nice. As Sunny points out, it’s part of a wider trend to personalise the whole issue. I don’t think that’s productive, and I think it puts these students on shaky ground morally.

By all means, protest against Porter – turn up to where he is and chant, campaign for his removal, inexhaustably list his catalogue of errors. But don’t intimidate and abuse him. It’s just not a nice way to behave.

Sunny – I don’t disagree with you about the egging. I can’t say I’m quite as worked up about it as you obviously are, but yes, it wasn’t particularly nice or clever.

As for the stable door, well, it would have been lovely if, after the egging incident, the students movement had been waiting on the edge of its seat to see whether I’d come out with a statement (maybe call a press conference) approving of or condemning what had happened. Better still if they’d run every proposed action past me in advance. But sadly, that doesn’t happen. Who knows why?

I can only state my own views, which on this subject are the same now as they always have been. To the extent that I’ve talked about this at all (I’ve written very little of substance in recent months on any subject), its been in terms of the political failings of the leadership (not limited to Porter), and the practical reasons for the leadership to be challenged politically from the grassroots.

If you’re keen to paint that as “tacit approval” or whatever, then, well, that’s up to you. I think people on the left are getting used to you flailing away at us on a daily basis, and few of us take it seriously any longer.

Ellie – did you speak to the Glasgow students or anyone who was there to ask exactly what form this action took? It would be interesting to establish what actually happened. As I say, you’ve still not shown that this was like actual kettling in any substantive way. Its hardly worth debating whether or not they should use the world “kettle” if that’s all that this amounts to.

Turns out I did issue an edict on this subject as far back as December 15th
http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/12/15/left-unity-and-the-bid-to-oust-aaron-porter/#comment-214241

33. Chaise Guevara

@ 25 Sunny

“It’s not just immature and makes them look like a bunch of idiots – it’s profoundly undemocratic and is basically bullying. ”

Agree with that. If you can’t win the argument, that’s no excuse for physical harrassment.

35. Chaise Guevara

@ 34

Ah. Busted.

Lots of questions raised both by your thought provoking blog and by the comments, some of which I find rather startling.

The prime point to me is one that you rightly make Ellie Mae, if students abhor kettling it is obvious hypocrisy to employ the same tactic as a ‘tool’ to show their disapproval – it doesn’t need much higher education to work that one out. But I am not ‘getting’ at students by saying that – it is the sort of thinking that meant that David Cameron could praise those demonstrating for democracy in Egypt whilst denouncing those doing the same thing here over the past months.

If one lives by the sword one should be prepared to die by the sword – or rather not in this case. Whatever Aaron Porter’s personal views he must realise that as he is representing a body of people he must also represent their views – and if he cannot do that he should step down and let someone else do it. But if those he is representing wish to appear fair and reasonable they must employ fair and reasonable tactics to get him to resign – and if he doesn’t then they will at least retain the moral high ground.

Sadly my membership of the NUS mostly meant taking advantage of the discounts at places of interest etc. I didn’t even get cheap alcohol but that was because I was a part time mature student with small children, I don’t begrudge those who have the opportunity to do otherwise!

Surely the essential point is that it’s a waste of time? I mean, is Porter likely to say, “Having been subjected to an angry mob the scales have fallen from mine eyes”? No, it’ll just bolster his sense of persecution and the protestors’ self-righteousness.

@34/35 – haha

Of course Sunny also supports criminal damage, sorry “direct action”, against power stations, banks, etc…

37

Yes that’s true too, but I was more interested in the moral aspect.

Re Sunny’s comment: I think the difference with Porter is that this is part of a wider victimisation of him – or rather, styling him as a hate figure. With Mandelson it was a one-off. Also Mandelson is a much more powerful public figure, protected heavily by the state / government, so the intimidation aspect probably wasn’t as salient.

I can’t speak for Sunny, but from my own point of view, I would be uncomfortable with an ongoing campaign against one politician. For a start, it’s never the case that one person is the sum of the problem, and simply put, it’s just not nice.

In terms of the comment Dave made on an earlier thread, I agree wholeheartedly.

Someone mentioned Wes Streeting earlier. I know Wes personally, and he is a very nice person who really believes in the politics he represents – as much as I disagree with pretty much all of them! The same might be true of Porter as well, we don’t know. As Dave argues, Porter’s record as NUS pres is enough to get rid of him, without having to resort to this type of behaviour.

jon 21, being the students being kettled were on a protest and it was crowd control,porter being suurounded by people who didn’t think he was strong enough on protest, were like that as they were picketing him.

There’s nothing ‘busted’ about my previous comment. Actually it shows that in some cases I applaud direct action and making life difficult for authorities. So no one can accuse me of being a softy liberal pacifist. But as you say above David – there is a sliding scale of comparison here. Kettling porter gently is not the same as being held by the police for hours. In the same way, one pie in mandelson’s face isn’t the same as a sustained campaign of harassment where you’re being chased by people in London, Manchester and Glasgow. And it’s absurd to think the two are the same.

Ellie,
Youv’e clearly joined the Labour Party!
Would you disapprove on throwing eggs at Clegg for misrepresenting his party in order to gain power?
If you don’t believe in the views of the majority you represent you should stand down rather than betray them.
Eggs are a traditional way of demonstrating dislike, hardly painful, just humiliating!

Aye, right!

Except it was not kettling, was it?

I love you band wagon bloggers. Trying to make your name by rehashing old news.

Why not look at the real story about why Glasgow staff and students are angry?

Aye, I forgot, that would take research.

Going to try to link to a wee picture:

http://ssy.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/aaron-300×200.jpg

Wonder if that worked?

It all shows the twattish immature protest ‘movement’ that, in the end, will mean nothing and contribute nothing to making a better society.

Most of these students will graduate and go on to earn some decent money, forgetting all about ‘lib dem hyprocrisy’, tax avoiders and whatever else they get het up about at the moment whilst hanging around the Student Union blowing their loan.

It is having increasingly diminishing effect on the wider public, and stunts like this will only increase that.

@40

“who really believes in the politics he represents – as much as I disagree with pretty much all of them! ”

Hmm, the same could be said of many – if not all – Conservatives. apart from them being nice people, of course. “Believing” in certain principles counts for nothing if those same principles are flawed.

43 & 44

I’m talking about an overarching campaign against Porter that is growing increasingly personal – something I said in exactly those words earlier on in the thread, which I’m surprised you didn’t cotton onto.

Aye, I forgot, that would take analysis.

Again I am repeating myself, but never mind: if you’re protesting for a more compassionate world, then the best place to start is by being compassionate yourself.

Judging by the tone of your comment, that’s not something you intend to do.

Ouch! Feels like a nerve has been touched.
Not all students grow up to be rich and right wing. Are you suggesting they should wait for the next election to depose a leader who doesn’t support their protests?

Well he can always step down, move on, become a socialist labour MP sure a parachute is available.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw

  2. The Dragon Fairy

    RT @libcon: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw

  3. earwicga

    RT @libcon: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw

  4. eva destruktion

    RT @libcon: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw

  5. sunny hundal

    Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  6. sunny hundal

    Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  7. Jonathan Lintern

    RT @sunny_hundal: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  8. Jonathan Lintern

    RT @sunny_hundal: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  9. Matt Jeffs

    RT @sunny_hundal: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  10. Matt Jeffs

    RT @sunny_hundal: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  11. Whistle

    RT @sunny_hundal: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  12. Bern O'Donoghue

    RT @sunny_hundal: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  13. tom hughes

    RT @sunny_hundal: Despite his politics, Aaron Porter does not deserve the harassment http://bit.ly/hzdyjw (or the bullying or egging)

  14. Why Aaron Porter had to go « jonesblog

    […] 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. […]

  15. Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down | Liberal Conspiracy

    […] a furious backlash against Porter’s leadership. Sometimes, this took rather unpleasant forms, as Ellie Mae has pointed […]

  16. Why Aaron Porter had to go | Left Futures

    […] 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. […]

  17. Hamish Gibson

    not a big fan of liberal conspiracy but great article on Aaorn Porter here: http://t.co/rCnS79S





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