Student occupiers call on NUS president to stand down

Aaron Porter is "incable of providing leadership".

Aaron Porter is "incable of providing leadership".

The president of the National Union of Students has refused help to student protesters who are facing eviction from occupied universities, in the NUS's second dramatic U-turn this week. After being threatened with removal by baliffs, students from UCL called on Aaron Porter, who had earlier pledged legal and financial help to all student occupiers. ""You are our union, and we're facing a legal bill, you promised us support - we urgently need your help," said the occupiers.

Porter, who had earlier apologised for "dithering" over whether or not to extend support to student protesters, stammered that he had not meant that kind of support, and that nobody's legal costs could be covered. The student movement has been holding demonstrations and sit-ins over planned public spending cuts, including proposals to raise tuition fees.

Porter said that when he promised to support and defend the protests, he meant that the NUS could possibly look into the legal status of the occupations and offer some advice.

Students across the country are now calling for the NUS president to resign.

"Time and again the leaders of the NUS have put their political careers before the interests of the students they claim to represent," said a representative of the UCL and Slade occupations. "After broken promises and chaotic, indecisive leadership, our union has again failed to support its members in the face of the gravest threat to education in decades."If Aaron Porter is incapable of providing leadership then he should step down," he said. "We are disappointed in Aaron Porter," said representatives of the Cambridge occupation, who also contacted the NUS to be told that there would be no legal support available "By offering legal help and not following through, Porter is actually putting students in danger."Aaron Porter declined to comment. "From our Universities to our government to the NUS, young people are being failed by institutions which are meant to be standing up for us," said the Cambridge occupiers. "This is why we are waging a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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