Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election


11:57 am - February 21st 2011

by Owen Jones    


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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.

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 14th 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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A longer version of this article is here.

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About the author
Owen Jones is author of ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’, to be published by Verso in May 2011. He blogs here and tweets here.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Education ,Trade Unions

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Reader comments


Rather than focusing on fees, the next NUS president should primarily focus on making the NUS more democratic so students aren’t dependent on the personal opinion of the president in order to get things done.

So all students are socialist are they? I suppose they are, until they start paying income tax…

Sixthly As the only major opposition party Labour are likely to win all of the by-elections for the next four years.

What better time for Porter to leap on to that particular gravy train?

Good stuff – but change “torchpaper” to “touchpaper”.

To an outsider he reeked Labour Party, and maybe he was badly advised by his L/P minders, which may indicate where the L/P stand on all this, not with the alternatives to cuts anyway!

“the next NUS president should primarily focus on making the NUS more democratic”

Agreed. He or she should focus on making the NUS an organisation that represents the interests of its members, not an organisation used as a stepping stone for people who want a safe labour seat.

Hmm, I don’t know Shane, but it’s not like Liam is going to please us lefties anymore. He is a more skilled operator than Aaron ever was, but I’m not sure.

Interesting that he won NUS Scotland president by being the first person ever to beat an incumbent. Looks like he’s scared off Aaron and may effectively do the same twice…

Adam

“6”

Well said well said indeed.

“he spent more time condemning so-called student ‘violence’ (in reality, minor vandalism on the part of a few, desperate youngsters)”

I doubt they were desperate youngsters. Much of the vandalism was carried out by well off kids.

minor violence, compared to police who could have killed someone, until the Alfie meradowscase reveals whether he was hit by a student or a P.C.s truncheon, i wont commnt on that, but, Threee P.C.s were hospitalised after having snooker balls thrown at their heads the crowd thrwe a barrier at the police, the fire extinguisher incident and a petrol bomb was thrown
as for him becoming a m.p wes streeting ‘s only just become a councillor.
didnt neil kinnocks son refuse to join the union,when he was at university, the fiest of many.

Good move, stepped down now than face a possibly embarrassing defeat or a victory with even more hassle. Whatever people think of the guys politics I bet this position has taken a human toll…

I wouldn’t trust Burns. Education is free in Scotland. There is no excuse for an NUS Scotland President to advocate something worse for his members than what his own Government is implementing.

The mood of the movement is grassroots mobilisation. I don’t know Mark Bergfield, but he seems like the only person i’ve come accross so far who is in touch with dominant mood of the grassroots,

The problem is the NUS is way over bloated and in a word useless. One small fact, the previous president of the students union of university of the arts London was voted in on less than 400 votes out of a possible 30,000! Do away with the NUS completely and things would get a lot more interesting…save us all some money also.

Wes and Gemma have now responded. Contrary to Owen’s favourable prediction, I think it prompted to think how close they would have come to such a similar ignominous end had the student radicalised in the same way during their tenures…

However, the rest of this article is very good.

15. Chaise Guevara

@ Stuart

“So all students are socialist are they? I suppose they are, until they start paying income tax…”

First statement’s wrong, second one’s silly. Plenty of socialists paying income tax, mate.

Isn’t there more here? Why do NUS Presidents presume that they should stand for a second term? And why do commentators presume that it is the norm?

“Job uncompleted”, is the normal argument for politicians. But NUS President is a short term job (possibly for long term philosophical reasons outside that job), so the occupant has one month to sort out the past and eleven months to act. Just get on with it in your eleven months.

With Porter gone (or going) it is time to rebuild the student movement and take to the streets once again. There must be no capitulation. We need to reinvigrate the anti-EMA campaign and force a government rethink on student loans.

Anything less is unacceptable.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  2. auerfeld

    One reason: utterly failed to represent students. RT @libcon: Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  3. Lee Hyde

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  4. Alex

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  5. Crimson Crip

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  6. azulbuho

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  7. sunny hundal

    At @libcon – 'Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down' http://bit.ly/gWshIm – by @owenjones84

  8. Rachel

    RT @libcon: Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  9. John Stuttle

    RT @sunny_hundal: At @libcon – 'Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down' http://bit.ly/gWshIm – by @owenjones84

  10. Ellie Mae O'Hagan

    RT @sunny_hundal: At @libcon – 'Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down' http://bit.ly/gWshIm – by @owenjones84

  11. mark wright

    @pete_boyle this is a good piece http://is.gd/pKVbLC

  12. Jolie

    Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/wyH9Usl via @libcon

  13. Jonathan Millins

    On a personal level I like @AaronPorter but he failed students just when they needed him most http://t.co/lVTnx6i

  14. Hey Porter, will you tell me the time? Time to go, actually* « Paperback Rioter

    […] support of the student movement for a while. Owen Jones, again on Liberal Conspiracy, has written a very good piece on Porter’s failings. It took the NUS far too long to support any of the protests that […]

  15. Double.Karma

    RT @libcon: Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  16. Political Dynamite

    RT @libcon: Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  17. Political Dynamite

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  18. manishta sunnia

    RT @PolDyn: RT @libcon: Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  19. manishta sunnia

    RT @PolDyn: RT @libcon: Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  20. kate mayer

    RT @PolDyn: RT @libcon: Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election http://bit.ly/gWshIm

  21. celesliverpool

    RT @euro_jonathan: On a personal level I like @AaronPorter but he failed students just when they needed him most http://t.co/lVTnx6i

  22. Why Aaron Porter’s departure is a loss for the student movement | Virtually Naked

    […] Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right to step down (liberalconspiracy.org) Wikio Wikio […]

  23. liberalideals

    Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election …: “Job uncompleted”, is the normal argument f… http://bit.ly/efojp6

  24. Rachel Hubbard

    Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election | Liberal Conspiracy http://goo.gl/RSfpd

  25. Claire Locke

    Five reasons why Aaron Porter was right not to seek re-election: http://bit.ly/ecfQFZ I'm sure I can think of a few more…

  26. That Was Quick. « Student Activism

    […] The National Union of Students is a large and influential body in Britain, but it has long been charged with excessive coziness with the country’s Labour Party. Porter’s critics, in fact, have regularly accused him of tailoring his presidency to suit his political ambitions. […]





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