When Aaron Porter Played Politics

“It is a rare moment in politics when a successful candidate sees support evaporate after an election.” LUKE HAWKSBEE questions what lessons we can learn from the Icarus-impersonating NUS leader.

Aaron Porter Clare Soloman Luke Hawkesbee Millbank National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts NUS parliament

For those of you who don’t know, the current NUS President goes by the name of Aaron Porter, and he’s come under fire from students recently. “So what, people are having another go at NUS, big deal”, I hear you cry.  But, actually, it’s a disinterested grumble and while normally I’d understand your response, there’s a real teeth-kicker at the end that will blow your mind.

In more detail, some of the criticisms of Porter are that he has failed to call for further substantial protests (or support them when they had been called for), focused more attention on student violence than police violence and betrayed students by failing to deliver promised legal assistance.  He also looks like a young boy who’s borrowed his dad’s suit to play politics. Admittedly that last one isn’t very serious.

These accusations were followed by a viral Facebook campaign that saw students and allies change their profile picture to a mugshot of the President accompanied by the word ‘despicable’ (a reference to his comments on the occupation of Millbank).

It comes as no surprise that many on the left are enthusiastically backing the ousting of Porter in favour of a more ‘activist’ candidate. There have been suggestions by third parties that Clare Solomon, President of the University of London Union, should stand for the position. (Watch her on Newsnight here).  It’s not just “the trots at it again”. The movement forged during the recent battle over fees and cuts has brought together schoolchildren, workers, recent graduates yet to find employment, and members of all the major parties. It’s entirely natural that many of these people feel alienated by Porter’s inefficacy and cowardice – regardless of their political background.

There are, however, students and commentators who oppose Porter’s ousting. They fear that it would split the student movement at a time when it is in most need of unity. Some have even advocated the view that a lame NUS President is a blessing in disguise. It has allowed both rank-and-file as well as activist organisations to come to the fore-ground in the media and in the movement – circumventing the NUS’ monopoly on student representation.

I can certainly see the merits of both arguments.  Notably, I have yet to see anyone backing the view that he is actually a good President. It is a rare moment in politics when a successful candidate sees support evaporate after an election. Perhaps this is in part a consequence of the procedure by which NUS sabbs are elected; having to garner the support of a statistically biased sub-section of those they claim to represent.

In any event I’m going to guess that we’ll have a different President come this time next year.

So, what lessons could they learn from their Icarus-impersonating predecessor? For a start, if you’re going to promise something, make sure you deliver. Cambridge occupiers were among those disappointed to find that when Porter pledged legal and financial aid to occupations, he apparently only meant to produce a guide on the general legal principles.

Secondly, if you’re going to talk the talk then you have to walk the walk. Porter’s election speech promised “the biggest fightback they’ve ever seen” and the NUS march was labelled ‘Demo-lition’. But it soon became apparent that any actual demolition of the tory HQ would be denounced as ‘despicable’. The photo-friendly Labourite apparently failed to accurately estimate the size of the “fightback” required. The ‘Demo-lition’ turnout was 50,000 (more than twice that expected despite supposedly reliable  estimates). Compare that to the NUS event on the day of the vote in Parliament, which struggled to attract 300 people.  Incidentally, the National Campaign Against Fees & Cuts event down the road attracted 30,000.

The key lesson – and the promised teeth-kicker – is that when you’re running an anti-cuts campaign against a fragile coalition, you should not even consider proposing a cut in grants targeted to help the poorest students. Even if it is in a private e-mail. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’ll say it again for any budding student politicians: as a Labour card-carrying student representative, telling the government to cut support for the poorest students is the exact opposite of your job.