Eek – I only intended this to be a few hundred words. I suppose there’s a lot to say.
Edit: It seems a lot of people agree with me. At the march in Manchester, Porter was chased away by a group of about 200 students, and the person who replaced him to give a speech at the rally was egged and booed off the stage.
Aaron Porter is the current President of the National Union of Students. He’s a Labour careerist and he just follows the status quo, for which he’s been slated by anti-cuts groups across the UK. We’ll see him in Parliament before too long. Today he wrote this piece in the Guardian in which he defends his actions and says the NUS is ‘leading the movement’ sparked in response to the government’s attack on young people. As usual, I’ll take a look at some of his claims and give a response, as rationally as possible.
At several points in the article, he points out that the groups criticising make up a small minority and “represent few people other than themselves”, and that in contrast, he has a duty to represent all students in the debate. Really? Let’s not forget that the NUS leadership is elected under a very undemocratic system – students themselves don’t vote for the President, NUS delegates from each student union do. So Aaron Porter has the position that he has because of a poll of a small group of people themselves elected by a small minority of members (in my union about 4,000 people out of 28,000 voted in the last presidential election race – significantly less will have voted for the NUS delegate). This group is dominated by Labour careerists, and it decided not to fight for free higher education. His position has no legitimacy, so for him to criticise other groups on the basis that they don’t represent students is ludicrous.
Clearly, since he was elected under a broken system, Porter cannot claim to represent the views of students. But what he can do is try to represent their interests. I argue that he and the rest of the NUS leadership aren’t doing that. It is not in students’ interest to pay tuition fees, whether £3,000 or £9,000. It is not in students’ interest to pay a graduate tax. What is in students’ interest is free, fair and funded higher education, but NUS UK has given up on that. It’s sold out. Neither Aaron Porter nor the anti-cuts movement can claim to represent the views of the majority of students, but at least the anti-cuts movement is representing their interests.
What about Porter’s claim that the NUS has been ‘leading the movement’? I find it laughable. He gives two examples of NUS leadership: the march on 10th November, and the upcoming march in Manchester tomorrow. He also claims that the NUS called a series of campus actions – this is complete bollocks. Where groups did take action in the form of occupations, he failed to support them. He himself admitted that he was spineless in dealing with that action, the action that he is now claiming to have led. What a joke.
He doesn’t mention another ‘action’ that the NUS led: the
candle-lit glowstick-lit vigil on the Thames, where a paltry couple of hundred people mourned the death of higher education, whilst around the corner tens of thousands were fighting to save it. Which of these two groups was acting in students’ interests?
I was at NUS Scotland’s candle-lit vigil outside Holyrood Parliament here in Edinburgh (there was no march happening up here, unfortunately). It was pathetic. A few too many speakers addressed a crowd of about 60 people in the dark, some holding candles but most not. A speaker from the St Andrews occupation was tagged on as an afterthought, and then speakers from other occupations were asked to come forwards, only to be denied the microphone. To his credit, Liam Burns tried to get some chants going, but it just felt wrong chanting ‘no ifs, no buts, no education cuts’ whilst holding a candle to mourn the death of higher education, and frankly it fell on its arse. The NUS has done some good things. It is good at mobilising students when it wants to be, and making Lib Dem candidates sign pledges gave the movement a focus. But right now it is not leading the movement as it should be, it is lagging far behind.
Stunningly, Porter then gives as an example of NUS leadership the fact that it is collaborating with other trades unions in organising the march tomorrow. This is a perfect example of how the NUS is lagging behind! Anti-cuts coalitions have been springing up all over the place, collaborations between anti-cuts campus groups and various trades union branches, and the NUS is nowhere to be seen! Groups like the Edinburgh Anti-Cuts Alliance, for example, have existed for months! Furthermore, trades union leaders have repeatedly called the student movement ‘an inspiration’. Do you think they’re talking about the glowstick-lit vigil? Somehow I think they’re talking about somewhat more direct action. The NUS has been lacking in its dealings with trades unions.
Porter then tries to manipulate the figures a little. Yes, over 650 unions do go into the NUS, and only a small number of those have passed motions of no confidence, but one of them was ULU, the union of the UK’s biggest university, and there are more in the pipeline. I looked at my local area to see what type of institution makes up the 650 unions figure, and lots of them are tiny 6th form colleges – less than 1% of unions doesn’t mean less than 1% of students. And how many unions haven’t yet had general meetings where motions of no confidence could happen? He is trying to imply that 99% of students approve of what he has done, when that is simply not the case; the vast majority haven’t spoken one way or the other.
Modern politics will not be swayed by street protest alone and that is why I am prepared to engage with Simon Hughes in his new role as the government’s “access advocate”.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but as far as I know the NUS’s policy of back-room deals hasn’t exactly yielded the best results for students over the past decade. ‘Engaging with the process’ seems to mean arguing for something you think you can get, rather than something you want. It seems to mean dropping your principles to get something, anything, from politics. Aaron Porter can’t look at what’s happened in the past few days in Tunisia and Egypt and tell me that nothing is achieved by street protest.
He finishes his article by lamenting that the group is infighting, implying that these anti-cuts groups should comply with his agenda. But which group is really breaking away from the other? The 200 people on the banks of the Thames, clutching glowsticks in the dark, making a lame argument for a graduate tax, or the tens of thousands of people fighting against the biggest assault on the welfare state that this country has ever seen? If he wants unity in the student movement, he can come to us.
encourage anyone who believes the government is cutting too hard and too fast to join us in Manchester on Saturday or to safely and peacefully show our campaign has moved beyond London
“Cutting too hard and too fast”… isn’t that an Ed Miliband talking point? Fuck you, Porter.