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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.