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)

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.