Friday, 12 November 2010

In considerate defence of Aaron Porter

On Wednesday, his union brought together tens of thousands of students and lecturers from all corners of the country to join a mass protest against a rise in undergraduate tuition fees specifically, and the Government's cuts programme in general.  He also, by most accounts, delivered an impressive speech to the amassed crowds.  This should have been a crowning moment for the NUS president.

For reasons that we all know, it was not.  It was a disaster.   Instead of sustained momentum for the NUS' cause, we witnessed wall-to-wall coverage of some of the most violent protests this country has seen in years.  The last time that I remember Sky News blanketing their footage, for so long sans advertisements, on one issue was possibly 7th July 2005.

For whilst the NUS president bestrode the stage in the sunshine, another set of crowds was elsewhere embarking on unimaginable aggression towards police and property.  The president hurried to the TV studios and told us: "Let me be clear - I absolutely condemn the actions of a small minority who have used violent means to hijack the protest."  The rioting was blamed on a splinter group of irresponsible anarchists.
Yet as John Harris writes in the Guardian today, as the dust has settled, it has become very clear that the peace was not broken by a "small minority" of hardcore protesters.  Oh, they were there indeed, but they were assisted and cheered on by hundreds, if not thousands, more supposedly peaceful students.  Even a member of the NUS executive council has since spoken out and encouraged further acts of "legitimate force" to bring down the Government.

Various accusations of incompetence, poor planning and outright incitement to violence have been laid at the feet of the NUS.  Quite rightly, the ultimate responsibility has been apportioned to their president, Aaron Porter.

Calls for his resignation have spread around the blogosphere and beyond, including Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, former Taxpayers' Alliance director Mark Wallace, political blog London Spin, and the bloggers Tory Bear and Guido Fawkes.

But it would be wrong and desperately unfair to blame Aaron Porter entirely for what happened at Millbank.  It does appear that some of the planning for Wednesday's demonstration was frightfully bad.  When it all turned pear shaped, the organisers appeared out of their depth.  Yet, as Jeremy Brier writes on Conservative Home today, "student politics is for children."  I don't think that the NUS is staffed (exclusively) by children but it certainly isn't staffed by adults with experience of these sort of occasions (incidentally, perhaps the real target of our retribution ought to be the UCU, who should have known better?).

Moreover, I know that Aaron Porter is not a bad person.  Whilst I struggle to agree with most of what he says about higher education, when I have met him he comes across as decent, thoughtful and composed.  If he doesn't hold it against me, I would even go so far as to call him impressive.

The attacks being made towards him have been depressingly personal.  Yes, there has been a failure of leadership and organisation at the top of the NUS.  Yes, Aaron Porter should resign.  Yes, what happened on Wednesday was despicable and those who committed criminal acts should feel the full force of the law.  But Aaron Porter and most of the NUS leadership went into this exercise with the best intentions, to protest loudly, angrily even, yet peacefully (even if I believe that their cause is misguided).

But people make mistakes, and blame for Wednesday's riots cannot rest with one man.  Of course, huge errors of judgement have been made.  He should go now, and go quietly.   It is a shame, for whether you agree or disagree with what he says, he is a sound NUS president.  

If he does indeed step down, I wager it will not be the last you see of Aaron Porter.

P.S. Thank you to Jess Freeman (@JessFreeman24) for your feedback and constructive suggestions.


  1. Spot on about most of this, and if the NUS genuinely represented students and Porter was impeccably nonpartisan then he could be given some slack. But they don't and he isn't, so in my view he's "fair game" for Tory media and blogosphere.

  2. Of course Porter should go. He condemned his fellow students as 'despicable' which makes him a scab in my book. He should be replaced by someone who will lead a real student fightback.