NUS president will not seek re-election

Aaron Porter agrees to step down this April, admitting that the union needs “reinvigorating” with a

The president of the NUS, Aaron Porter, has today announced that he will not be seeking re-election in the upcoming NUS elections. He will become only the second NUS president since 1969 to not serve a second term.

Porter came to power as a wave of student activism swept the UK in response to government cuts to education funding. Porter failed to ride it and was instead swept under.

When an NUS-organised demonstration turned violent, Porter was left in the straitened position of having to condemn the damage, without aggravating the increasingly vocal left-wing membership of the union. It was a diplomatic tightrope from which he fell.

With the union critical of the direct – and often violent – action taken by some students, the movement took on a dynamic separate from the NUS, leaving the organisation looking dated and out of touch. Porter failed to offer his support to high-profile student occupations that popped up in universities across the UK throughout November and December.

The NUS president offered a mea culpa for his "dithering" and lukewarm response to them. Speaking at the UCL occupation, Porter said: "For too long the NUS has perhaps been too cautious and too spineless about being committed to supporting student activism. Perhaps I spent too long over the last few days doing the same. I just want to apologise for my dithering in the last few days." This apology did little to raise the president's standing among more ardent student protesters.

In another blow, a memo leaked to the Daily Telegraph in December showed that Porter had been prepared to cut maintenance grants to the poorest students. And in January, he had to be escorted by police and forgo a pubic appearance in Manchester after being surrounded by demonstrators calling for his resignation.

Now, in effect, they have it. With the elections in April, Porter is a lame-duck president.

Here is his full statement:

Dear All

The last few months have been momentous. Our response to the government's austerity measures will go down in the history books. We've kick-started a wave of student action, brought the coalition to its knees, and we've shaped the public debate on education in an unprecedented fashion. This campaign began over three years ago – a long-term strategy to deliver a real alternative to a market in fees, and it's a campaign I have been heavily involved in from the very beginning as a student officer in Leicester, as vice-president (higher education) and then as NUS president.

The government's decision to treble tuition fees was a bitter pill to swallow – and whilst a number of concessions were secured, notably for part-time students as well as an increased threshold of repayment for all graduates, this was still not the outcome we wanted. Thousands of students will now decide that higher education is not for them – and the ones that do get to go will be plunged into an era of market chaos. It's a tragedy – and one that requires relentless pressure, both locally and nationally, to ensure that it is exposed and replaced with something better as soon as possible.

So this new regime brings with it a new landscape, and I believe NUS now needs reinvigorating into the next phase of this campaign. After considerable soul-searching, I believe there needs to be a new president to lead the student movement into that next phase. As a result, I've resolved not to seek re-election at National Conference this year.

The challenge for a new national president will be great. They'll need to support students' unions and student officers to get the best deal for students, whilst running a major national campaign to defeat damaging marketisation in education. They'll need to build activism and radicalism on the ground whilst defending legitimate, democratic students' unions from attack from our enemies. Above all, they'll need a fresh outlook – because if we are to reach out, and engage with, the full diversity of our membership, we need to move beyond the tired rhetoric and redundant tactics of some factional groups.

I want to say thank you to the hundreds of students and student officers who have been so supportive this year, and indeed for the nominations for a second term which I had already been sent. It goes without saying that with a white paper on its way, the next four months remain a huge opportunity for the organisation, and I will be relentless in ensuring I do the very best I can in the role.

We should continue to be proud of what we have achieved, and it has been an honour to be president at this time. If I have one criticism of this year, it would be that we have not been quick enough to talk about our achievements – and I hope we can pause for a moment to remedy this.

Let's push on to make sure we credit ourselves for what we have achieved, and ensure we work together to push NUS and the student movement to the next level.

In unity,

Aaron Porter

(Hat-tip: Liberal Conspiracy)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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