Election 2022: From the student union to the city chambers

Benn Rapson’s face is instantly recognisable to many Glasgow students. Just over a year ago, he was elected as president of the students’ union at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland’s third-largest university, with around three-quarters of the 1,123 votes – a testament to his frenetic campaigning over his five years of involvement in the student movement, including a previous year working for the union as a sabbatical officer dealing with welfare issues. He has also made his impact on student politics at a national level, having earlier this month secured the support of NUS Scotland’s annual conference for his proposal that it should work towards the establishment of a new, independent National Union of Students for Scotland. Now, Rapson has turned his sights on an even bigger electoral challenge by putting himself forward as an independent candidate in the student-heavy Anderston/City/Yorkhill ward for this May’s Glasgow City Council elections.

“Politics is actually really dry as a university subject,” Rapson observes. Though his degree in politics and social policy has been on hold for two years while he works full-time for Strathclyde students, he has every intention of returning to his studies to complete his final year – but admits “it’s much less exciting than real world politics”. Despite this, his decision to run in the council elections was not one he made easily. “The nomination papers went in about four hours before nominations closed,” he confesses. “I had just come back from an NUS UK conference the day before. On the train coming back from Liverpool, I was sitting with people who had also been at the conference, going ‘do I or don’t I?’ back and forth, and eventually they talked me into going for it.”

An “adopted Glaswegian” originally hailing from Clydebank, Rapson has aimed his election pitch firmly towards Glasgow’s young people and students, who he promises to do his best to represent within the city chambers. “Glasgow has this amazing potential to be the best city in Scotland to live, work and study in,” he says. “But right now, it’s probably not any of those three things.” His proposals to remedy that, influenced by his socialist politics, include bringing the city’s buses back into “full public ownership” and expanding free transport, restoring the council’s role as a housing provider by building its first new council housing in two decades, clamping down on “rip-off rents” in purpose-built student accommodation, rerouting the M8 away from the city centre, and revitalising Sauchiehall Street, the formerly busy centre of Glasgow’s nightlife. Many of these ideas have been raised by local campaign groups like Get Glasgow Moving and Replace the M8, and Rapson has pledged to work with these and the likes of tenants’ union Living Rent as a councillor, as well as students’ unions, trade unions and youth representatives.

“There’s a lack of ambition within the council to actually do things,” he argues. “We have an SNP administration that’s come in after forty years of a Labour administration. Yeah, you can make an argument that they’re having to clean up a couple of the messes that the Labour administrations have left. You can also make an argument that local councils are incredibly squeezed because of decisions that the Scottish Government has made over the last decade or so. But there is also just a lack of ambition in a way that has led the city to decline.

“If you were a student back in Sauchiehall Street’s prime, that would have been an amazing location to go on nights out as a student and get all these cultural experiences – but not so much now, because it’s in a very sorry state. Look at public venues in Glasgow that have closed through the pandemic or have partially closed, because there just isn’t the money or investment in them. These are key parts of Glasgow’s cultural life that have been left to stagnate or go into a terminal decline, and that’s really frustrating.”

The problem, as Rapson sees it, isn’t that the current crop of councillors don’t care about the city – it’s that they lack, in his view, the “energy and determination” to deliver change, as well as there being a culture of deference to the advice of unelected council officers, lawyers and Holyrood which is “holding the council back”. Rapson’s argument is that, rather than a weakness, the “vagueness” of councils’ remit in Scots law is a strength.

“Ultimately the councillors are there to speak on behalf of the citizens that elected them and make decisions, and what I would like to do as a councillor is to push the boundaries of the legislation surrounding local government,” he says. “Even if the council officers are a little bit uncomfortable, we should press on. What’s the Scottish Government going to do? Say ‘no, you shouldn’t do this thing that’s going to materially improve the lives of citizens in Glasgow’? As long as we’re trying to do a good thing, I don’t see why we shouldn’t do it as a council.” It’s that energy and determination to get things done that Rapson sees as a defining feature of the student movement and one of the key parts of his student experience that he hopes to bring into local politics.

There is perhaps a parallel there with Rapson’s most recent achievement in the student movement: the first, tentative steps towards re-establishing an independent National Union of Students for Scotland. Although the idea has been discussed on a number of occasions since the Scottish Union of Students merged into NUS UK in 1971, it was only this month that it was formally endorsed by NUS Scotland’s conference on the foot of a motion written by Rapson and brought to the conference through his students’ union. A joint statement issued after the conference by the presidents of NUS Scotland and NUS UK affirms: “We will ensure that the will of this conference is taken forward in good faith and with our full support and enthusiasm.” From Rapson’s perspective, this step is part of the project of democratising the student movement in Scotland.

He explains: “NUS Scotland at the moment has political autonomy. It can say what it believes and it can have a different position from NUS Wales or NUS-USI in Northern Ireland, and NUS UK centrally. But it doesn’t have organisational or structural autonomy, it doesn’t have its own resources.” He welcomed Matt Crilly, the outgoing president of NUS Scotland and one of Rapson’s predecessors as president of Strath Union, speaking in favour of his proposal at conference, particularly because he highlighted that the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has ten times as many full-time elected officers as NUS Scotland despite representing fewer students overall. “We don’t really have a National Union of Students in Scotland,” Rapson posits. “We have a brand with a spokesperson – and that isn’t necessarily what the student movement needs or deserves in Scotland.”

Any change in NUS Scotland’s status is unlikely to happen quickly, which Rapson seems relaxed about. “It needs to go through years of a process, but that process gives us time to have a national conversation about what we want a new union to look like,” he suggests. “It’s not about going independent for independence’s sake, it’s not about replicating NUS UK but on a Scottish level – it’s about doing things differently and creating a national union that is more engaging, not just for student unions but students as well. It’s about directly connecting with students so they know they have a national union that fights for their rights as students and ensures that they’re treated fairly by the government and universities and colleges.”

Likewise, he believes that Glasgow City Council could do more to engage with young people and students. One way he proposes to do so is by embracing policies that recognise the urgency of the climate crisis, which he identifies as “the biggest battle of my generation’s lifetime”. Many of Rapson’s ideas have a “climate connection”, whether that’s his ambitious proposal to replace the M8 in the city centre with a high-density urban street (“because it’s better for people who live in Glasgow, and it’s better for the planet”) or his support for a massive expansion of free public transport overseen by a new publicly-owned and democratically accountable Strathclyde Transport Authority, which he contrasts to other parties’ proposals for a franchising model that would still allow private companies to be involved (“I’m in favour of going full hog – there’s no point taking a half measure”). His assessment of the SNP administration’s record is withering. “They made a lot of big promises about the transformational impact they would have in Glasgow and I haven’t seen it,” he says.

“People should vote for me on May 5th because if I’m elected to Glasgow City Council, I’ll provide a strong voice for young people and students, and more than that – everyday, ordinary Glaswegians – and I’ll bring a drive and determination for the council to work towards getting shit done,” Rapson promises. “We need to move Glasgow forward in a direction and at a speed of pace that’s needed. It’s not enough to just paddle in the water when the rest of the world is sinking. We need to push ahead and drive Glasgow forward.”

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