Sunday, 13 March 2011

Sweeping Aaron Porter under the carpet

He hasn't officially ended his tenure as President of the National Union of Students, and already Aaron Porter is contemplating proving his critics right and taking up a safe Labour seat in Leicester South.

Porter announced in February that he will not be seeking re-election in April. Ostensibly, this is because the camapign against fees is "moving into a different landscape" and the NUS needs "a new president to lead the student movement into that next phase." However, as I've previously written, the main reason for this has to be perpetuating the lie that the failures of bureaucratic institutions can be boiled down to individual leaders rather than the structure of leadership itself.

But, having done his duty on that front, the man is of course eager to retain a position of some privilege. Being an MP would fulfill that role, not to mention the prophecies of his critics.

This comes as no surprise, and so I find it hard to react with anger or outrage as many - including the Labour left - now are. Porter is, quite simply, making the transition that he always intended to make and that innumerable NUS presidents before him have made. He is and always was a careerist, so he can't honestly be accused of duplicity on this point.

Likewise, I would say that pinning his faults on "careerism" is, like blaming a single figurehead, misleading. The next NUS president may or may not be a careerist, but even if they aren't it would be folly to hold your breath for any kind of radicalism. The role demands otherwise.

Take the three current front runners, interviewed by Owen Jones.

Liam Burns contends that whereas Porter "retrenched into the ‘left’ vs. the ‘moderates’ narrative once again," he thinks "we should have been honest about the tensions between students’ unions who traditionally have won significantly for students locally through lobbying and influencing, and anti-cuts groups that had more affinity for direct action." He would thus "make room for different tactics by working with anti-cuts groups" but is in no way "claiming direct action is my natural turf at all."

This "honesty" is a marked change in rhetoric, and Burns will be less oppositional to direct action. However, he maintains that he "won’t let us drop everything all of the time for direct action." Appreciating and "dealing with" the tensions he describes is one thing, but he still puts the NUS explicitly on the side of political lobbying, electoralism, and the appeal to authority.

Mark Bergfeld is more direct in calling Porter "foolish" and urging that the union should have done everything he didn't, from supporting walk-outs to mobilising for a general strike. As an anarchist, I would disagree that "what we need is a national Union which leads the struggle," but he comes across as a far more militant potential leader. Which is probably why he is the favoured candidate of the Socialist Workers' Party, Workers Power, and others.

However, the revolutionary reformism of the far-left is also evident in other ways. Such as the idea that "our struggle can only succeed if members and sections of the Labour Party align themselves with us," and that "defeating the austerity agenda ... will necessitate Labour Party members being at the core of the struggle, and people from the anti-capitalist left like myself standing shoulder to shoulder with them." In other words, that old chestnut of "left unity." This is not to mention that, using the parallel of trade unionism, even the most militant of the so-called "awkward squad" are prone to selling out their members exactly as Aaron Porter did, and that members of far-left parties like the SWP are just as guilty as anybody else.

Bergfeld may well be the most left of the candidates, and may talk the best game. But, even should he get in, we will not see the NUS become a revolutionary body. Not least because, despite its claims, his own party isn't revolutionary.

Shane Chowen comes across as the most "moderate" and centrist of the three. "What I resent is the way the debate has turned into a “my tactics are better than yours” which some have used to bash NUS with, at a time when we’re all fighting the same fight, just in different ways" is just one of his chestnuts.

Along with "what has to end is the bitter war which is essentially over whose logo goes on flyers because this is what turns students away," it is another call for "unity." Though this time from a centre-left rather than far-left viewpoint. Again, little more than an accusatory finger at any and all criticism as "divisive" and "sectarian." Cause the enemy of your enemy is your friend, no matter what they do, right?

He shies away from answering on whether or not he supports direct action, but tells us far more when he declares is pride "that NUS was there to help [a save EMA rally in Taunton] organise that demonstration, liaise with the police and so forth." His comment that "I am proud to have served on [Aaron Porter's] team throughout his time as President" only seals the deal.

Though they cut across the NUS's internal political spectrum - Chowen being "right" and Bergfeld being "left" - all three candidates represent a continuity. In different ways, they move away from Porter but this transition is entirely aesthetic, with nothing substatial underneath.

The real problem with Porter making the seamless transition from NUS bureaucrat to Labour Party bureaucrat is that he can be squirelled away in happy obscurity. The left can redouble their efforts to build peoples' illusions about bureaucracy and official leadership. If this happens, they will achieve what Porter couldn't - the death of the working class fightback.