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)

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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