Tuesday, 22 February 2011

On Aaron Porter's departure

Aaron Porter has announced that he will not be seeking re-election as President of the National Union of Students (NUS) in April. I class myself as amongst the many glad to be rid of the man. But we should be under no delusions that the NUS itself will operate any differently.

It's true that Porter's personal conduct has generated a lot of flak. He condemned the seige of Millbank Tower - without which there wouldn't have been a movement against the cuts of any significance - as "despicable," and tut-tutted over "violence" by students against inanimate objects as those same students had their heads bashed in by police. Then there was the hollowness of his political stance, at one point suggesting that slashing grants to the poor may be the best way to avoid a fees hike.

In short, Porter was willing to sell out those he supposedly represents at every turn. For such callous betrayals in the name of his own self-interest, he is no better than a scab marching across a picket line for a few extra pounds.

But it also has to be recognised that the problems of the NUS do not begin and end with Porter. For a start, it is a servicing union. It exists mainly to negotiate discounts and promotions for students, alongside the occasional squeak in the non-commercial interests of its members. As such, even if one believed in the need for top-down leadership, its mandate to lead a street movement against fee hikes and education cuts was always flimsy at best.

Then there is the fact that he has hardly broken a trend by being a bureaucratic sop. His predecessor Wes Streeting - now a Labour Party councillor - was the one who pushed for the union to drop its support for free higher education. And the organisation's list of presidential alumni includes such figures as Jack Straw, Phil Woolas, and Charles Clarke. Hardly a hotbed of left-wing radicalism.

The fact is that, as it stands, the NUS is not fit for purpose as a militant fighting organisation. And if the transformation from a servicing union to a campaining union were possible, as happened with PCS, it would be such a drain of energy and resources that one needn't bother. Especially as such a reformed NUS would still carry all of the inbuilt limitations which weigh down even the most militant mainstream trade unions. Sure, it would be without the utter embarrasment that is Porter, but this would in no way guarantee against the rank-and-file being demobilised from above.

Porter's departure from the student movement should be a lesson for everyone. But if that lesson is that we can push for better leadership, then we haven't moved forward at all. Because the truth is that we are better without leadership, and it is rank-and-file militancy that wins struggles.