Aaron Porter: 'Politicians? They sell students cheap gimmicks'
Aaron Porter, the president of the NUS, has been thrust into the limelight after the recent tuition fees protests.So what exactly is his gripe with mainstream politics?
Saturday 27 November 2010
aaron porter is an unlikely rabble-rouser. For a start, he's the son of a policeman. And it's fair to say he doesn't exactly look the part, either. Slight in build, and neatly dressed in a dark grey suit with a red tie, he could pass for a young management consultant – not the student leader who's just brought about one of the biggest protest riots in Britain since the 1990 Poll Tax riots.
But that is what Porter did – albeit unintentionally – three weeks ago, when hundreds of student protesters laid siege to the iconic Millbank Tower, home of the Conservative Party, smashing up the front of the building and propelling student discontent over university tuition fees to the top of the political agenda.
The riot gave the National Union of Students, of which Porter is the President, a profile that it hasn't enjoyed for generations. No longer will the organisation be regarded as a mere finishing school for Labour apparatchiks: complacent British students have finally embraced the continental Gallic-style protest model, and made themselves loudly and clearly understood.
"On that day, I had gone past Millbank on an open-topped double decker bus when one of our staff members came up and said: 'Have you heard what's happened at Millbank? The riot police have gone in,'" Porter remembers. "My first thought was that it was going to be worse than it turned out to be. I feared that there had been a police charge and was worried that people had been injured. I wanted to see for myself what was going on."
What greeted him were not anarchists – as some newspaper reports later suggested – but students, some as young as 15, high on the adrenalin of rioting. A group of about a dozen had somehow managed to get on to the roof, while others marauded through the lobby, destroying furniture as they went. "When I got there, all I could see was a sparse line of police and a perhaps more than 1,000 students chanting and shouting loudly," says Porter. "There was clearly mayhem going on inside. I had a split-second decision to make about whether I should make an appeal for people to move away from the scene. But it wasn't that kind of environment."
Porter decided, instead, to take to the airwaves and condemn the rioters. "It immediately occurred to me that it could jeopardise the NUS position but, more importantly, that we could also lose public support. Why should taxpayers support students when they are seen to be trouble-makers?" Another, more personal concern, was Porter's anticipation of the reaction of his father, recently retired from the police service. "I knew as soon as the violence started to happen that I would be getting that phone call from my dad," he says. "His first words were, 'You should be very proud of the 50,000,' but then, 'You need to be very careful. The police hold records on people like you'."a week later, when we meet at the House of Commons, just a few hundred yards down the road from the scene of the crime, that knock on the door still hasn't come. Porter has, however, been on every major television and radio bulletin, been interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and, just prior to meeting me, has had a slot on the Daily Politics show – this time about the union's campaign to try to "recall" Nick Clegg as an MP in his Sheffield constituency.
Porter has received both hate mail from the Tory shires and anger from the left for failing to stick up for the rioters – but his main message about the issue of raising student tuition fees has been getting through loud and clear. "On the right, I've had people say they will never support the students again for what they've done, and on the hard left, they've said these are still your members and a union leader shouldn't criticise any of its members.
"Of course, I want to stand in solidarity with our members. But I will never stand in solidarity with someone who threw a fire extinguisher off a roof."
It is easy to forget that Porter is only 25 and still living at home with his mum and dad. He had been NUS President for just three months before the recent protest. But if a week is a long time in politics, then the three months of the debate over student funding into which Porter was thrust must have seemed like an eternity.
Porter has had meetings with David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and David Willetts. He has had to give evidence to Lord Browne – the former BP boss who led the review on student funding – and then also had to be at the forefront of the opposition to Browne's proposals.
"Some of the meetings I've been at are at such a high level that everything you say can have massive implications," Porter says without a trace of arrogance. "There is nothing that can prepare you for that."
Porter was called in by David Cameron to receive a briefing of the Browne report prior to its publication. Present at the meeting was a cast of luminaries including Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Vince Cable. "Browne presented his report and then we were invited to give our opinions. The Prime Minister and Nick Clegg were very amiable and friendly and came over to say hello. But Vince Cable just seemed uncomfortable – his eyes were firmly set on the floor and his body language was crumpled. He didn't say a single word to me in the entirety of the meeting.
"At the end, Ed Miliband – who I think had picked up on Vince Cable's discomfort as well – went over and said, 'So Vince, how is life in the Cabinet?' At that point the Prime Minister strode over, put his hand on Vince's shoulder and said, 'Everything is absolutely fine'."
Porter is one of two children. His brother is one year younger and works as a translator in Brussels ("Don't worry, he's not interested in politics at all... we're not the Milibands"). His mother is a primary school teacher, originally from Trinidad. No one in his family, he says, was particularly interested in party politics. But it is clear that public service was close to the family's heart. "We used to watch the six o'clock news every day. It was a routine. And afterwards we would discuss and debate some of the issues. That's where I got a lot of my political grounding.
He attended a state primary school and then went on to Wilson's – a state funded but selective boys' school in Sutton. After A-levels, he went to Leicester University to study English Literature and became the editor of the student newspaper. Despite being a member of the Labour party ("in a personal capacity") Porter has always claimed that he has no wider ambitions for getting involved in politics. "I was ambivalent towards the NUS to begin with and to be honest I didn't see it as much more than a way to get a discount card." That changed on the 2006 National Demo just after tuition fees were brought in, he says. "The President – a woman called Jemma – gave quite a good speech and I thought to myself there and then: I can see the bigger picture." Porter stood to be an NUS Vice-President (Higher Education) in 2008; two years later he was elected to the top job.
When he began last June, it was the start of the new Government and the beginning of the row about university funding. "It is and has been the most amazing experience and the most amazing job you could possibly do," Porter says with genuine excitement. "It's much more intense than I ever possibly imagined. I never thought I'd have to be fielding phone calls at 2am right through to the aftermath of the violence. No one can prepare you for that."
It could be a bluff, but Porter's strikingly low opinion of Westminster politics seems genuine. Perhaps surprisingly for an NUS President whose forebears include Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and Jim Murphy, he is damning about people who never live a life outside politics and says he wants to get a "real job" before even thinking about going into the House of Commons.
He says he reflects a generation which believes that the old way of politics is not working. "A lot of students say all politicians are the same – and I think politicians have a big responsibility for that. They need to talk more about principles. We often get sold cheap gimmicks.
"I have been disappointed by a series of leaders in different ways. Tony Blair had a massive opportunity to transform Britain but he did not utilise his huge majority. Gordon Brown had good ideals but he could not carry his party with him."
And David Cameron?
"I never had much time for him."
But he saves his biggest criticism for Nick Clegg: "He said some great things at the General Election – such as no more broken promises. People fell for that. What we've seen from Clegg is not that he's genuinely changed his mind – he's changed what he's said because the circumstances have changed... I've got less respect for someone who says what he says because it fits at the time."
I ask Porter if he intends to go into politics. "I think I've been asked that question more than I've spent time thinking about it. I am interested in politics but I'm not sure it's the best way to effect the sort of changes I want to see. We are seeing the rise of single-issue campaigning – such as the Robin Hood tax or the burkas campaign last year.
"Actually, if I want to see fair admissions into university or beyond that – proper redistribution between people who are richer and people who are poorer – I think campaigning toward the Government might be a more effective way than from the inside. We have lost a lot of idealism and maybe mainstream politics isn't the best place to find it."
Porter's three months at the union helm, and all those pressure-cooker meetings with the country's political heavyweights, clearly haven't convinced him otherwise. And while his political nous may have been nurtured at home, that grounding influence might also put him off a career stalking the corridors of power.
"My mum continually warns me against politics," Porter says. "She is of the opinion that politicians all become the same – and she doesn't want to see that happen to me."
Five student protests that shook the world
Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia, Nov 1989
Brutal police repression of a peaceful student march in Prague sparked a series of demonstrations. The next year, Czechoslovakia held its first free elections since 1946.
May 1968 protests, France
Students occupying the Sorbonne and Nanterre universities clashed violently with police, but they failed to overthrow the government of President Charles de Gaulle.
University shootings, Ohio, USA, 4 May 1970
2,000 students protested against American action in Indochina. The National Guard opened fire, killing four people. Four million students then walked out of class in protest.
Tiananmen Square, April-June 1989
A demonstration started by pro-democracy students in Beijing culminated in the Peoples' Liberation Army killing an estimated 2,000 people on 4 June.
Budapest, 23 October 1956
20,000 students took to the streets in protest at Hungary's totalitarian pro-Soviet government, which collapsed the next day. It became known as the Hungarian Revolution.
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