Archive | July, 2012

The Reid Foundation – Scotland’s left-wing think-tank

24 Jul

By Robin McAlpine

Think tanks aren’t really think tanks at all. In fact most of them are really ‘advocacy groups’ (so much less catchy…) because they exist more to push particular ideas than just to ‘think big thoughts’. But they work, and that’s why right-wing and business groups are so keen to fund them.

It is also why we set up the Jimmy Reid Foundation, the only left-of-centre think tank in Scotland. We were sick of switching on Newsnight Scotland to hear people endlessly making the case for privatisation and the end of universal services. We were sick of newspapers running stories which were of interest only to a few vested interest but which were presented as if all of Scotland was talking about them. We were sick of every new idea being punted to politicians being another case of outsourcing or marketising the public sphere or making private profit out of the public sector one way or another.

This was two out of three reasons we decided we needed to start a left-wing think tank. First, we needed to inject ideas into the political debate which were about strengthening society, not increasing private profit. Scottish thinking has been dominated by the thinking of institutions – the big players who organise society for their benefit. There is precious little good thinking coming from inside politics about how to organise society for the benefit of real people. We decided that we could hardly complain if we didn’t try to do something about it ourselves.

Second, we became increasingly aware that the left is not always as well organised or professional in its approach as it might be. If you are a journalist and want to get a non-party right-wing comment there are endless phone numbers you can call. But if you are a journalist and you want a non-party left-wing comment, who do you phone? If the left can’t sort itself out and deal with media relations and lobbying as professionally as the right then, again, we can hardly complain if the right is more successful.

But there is a third reason that Scotland was particularly in need of a left-wing think tank. There are very few countries in the world where the government claims to be a left-of-centre party, the opposition claims to be a left-of-centre, there are a clutch of other left-of-centre parties but no credible challenge from the right. On the one hand, this might sound like a great situation for a socialist to be in. On the other, it means that Scotland’s left is fragmented and spread over many political parties. Sometimes that makes it harder, not easier, to achieve left-wing outcomes because sometimes it becomes hard for people to put their internal and external political rivalries aside to come together behind individual issues.

In Scotland the left is split between parts of the SNP, parts of the Labour Party, the SSP, Solidarity, the Greens and even parts of the Lib Dems (and a couple of other smaller parties). And that is before we even consider the very wide range of social, political and environmental campaigning. A couple of years ago, following the split of the SSP and Solidarity, some people were asking if what we needed was a ‘fresh start’ left-wing political party. And while there may be a very strong case for that in the medium term, we felt that the left could not afford to vacate the political stage for all the time it would take to set one up, or to walk away from the left-wing that exists in Scotland’s other political parties.

That is the third reason for the Foundation – rather than trying to unite the left around new organisations, we hope to be able to unite the left around individual ideas. Our hope was that if good ideas came from an ‘honest broker’ like the Foundation then there would be less of a barrier to people from different political parties supporting it than there would if it had come from just one of those parties.

And the evidence so far is that this is working. Since we began operating properly in February of this year we have published two major policy papers, one on the reform of public procurement, one on reforming local democracy. And we have had remarkable cross-party support for both, with our work on procurement already changing the nature of the political debate in Scotland and hopefully influencing new legislation coming later this year.

But who are we? Well, the Foundation has been set up by the Scottish Left Review. The SLR was set up in 2000 by legendary Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid. For more than a decade it has been publishing incisive political writing from across the spectrum of left and green politics in Scotland. We are trusted by people of many different political affiliations and have never been associated with one political party or another. So the Foundation was set up in Jimmy’s name and is managed by the Scottish Left Review board, although a Project Board of leading independent thinkers guides all the work of the Foundation.

How can you help? Well, you can join the Reid Foundation Network which is an online community of people of the left. There you can debate current policy, influence our work programme and find a load of resources you should find interesting (including a diary of events and a news section). But of course a left-wing think tank does not get the kind of funding a right-wing think tank does. We have no corporate sugar-daddy throwing money our way so we need the help of ordinary people who like us want to see society rebalanced away from big commercial interests and towards real people. And so, if you can afford it, you can set up a small regular donation to the Foundation. It would make all the difference.

Scotland has never been more in need of a clear left-wing voice. In the six months or so since we started operating properly we have had some successes. But there is much more that needs to be done and the right-wing pressures have not gone away. We think Scotland needs the Foundation – and we certainly need you.

 

Then & now: Exploring the themes of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

10 Jul

By Tommy Kane, West Lothian Trades Union Council

Since its publication, socialists have justifiably conferred biblical status on the celebrated Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.  Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism.

The book illustrates this at its most rudimentary level, in the workplace. In so doing the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses is revealed. As is how the relations of production in a capitalist system impacts and constrains social relations, human activity, and the freedom of people to pursue their lives, their dreams and talents in whatever way that they desire.

Therefore, when West Lothian Trades Union Council and our ‘Better Way Campaign’ heard that Townsend Productions were touring with a theatre production of the book we went to all out to organise showings in West Lothian. Townsend Productions agreed to come from the Citizen Theatre to Loganlea Miners Welfare – quite a coup!

Both shows sold out and were resounding successes. Partly this was because it was just a good, entertaining night out; the audience who came along enjoyed coming to the theatre and witnessing two actors at the top of their craft. However, any good show, song or film works because it resonates when people identify with its core messages. So it was in Loganlea last October.

People also liked the show because they still recognised how unequal workplace relationships still exist today, 100 or so years after the book was written. Moreover they understand how the current economic crisis is being used as an opportunity to intensify inequality and concentrate even more wealth, produced by the workers, in the hands of a few.

Indeed, much of the gains made in the course of the 20th century are being shed and it appears the Tories want to take us back to the days of Tressell and the workmen in Mugsborough.

Take the themes of casualisation. Yes, casualisation is not a new phenomenon; Thatcher’s flexible workforce was a key feature of her neo-liberal project and was shamefully embraced and accepted by New Labour. Yet recently we have observed a spring in the step of the bosses.

The Beecroft report gives the game away. The report by the venture capitalist and Tory Benefactor makes no bones about it: he recommends changes to the law to enable people to be fired on the spot.  And, if that means people being sacked by bosses who simply have taken a personal dislike to them then that’s apparently a ‘price worth paying’.

Recently in West Lothian we have seen two disputes where it seems these battle lines are being drawn. While different they both have clear commonalities. At API foils in Livingston an aggressive management attempted to impose changes to wages and conditions, disregarding the Trade Unions right to negotiate on behalf of the workers. Ultimately they backed down, successfully resisted by solid trade union organisation which forced a return to the negotiating table.

At the Government agency HMRC, tax workers in Bathgate have seen work sub-contracted to Teleperformance. They appear to have taken their workplace practices and rules straight from the book and from Rushton and Hunter. Paying their workers £4000 less than what HMRC pay staff. In addition they have put workers on individual contracts and do not recognise collective agreements.

Unbelievably, they also tell their workers they need to work overtime when the ‘business’ requires it, which could be bank-holidays or weekends, but that they are under no obligation to pay the workers for that work either by cash payment or time in lieu. What an indictment of working conditions in 21st century Britain.

Core themes and messages from Tressell’s book can also be applied at the macro as well as the micro level. Tressell’s book touches on the lack of a social security and welfare system. It also poignantly shows the intrinsic sadness and hopelessness associated with poverty and its manifestations like hunger and bad housing.

In the years after the publication of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists these blights on British society reduced. A central factor was increasing trade union membership and activity, which without doubt led to a political willingness and commitment by successive governments from 1945-1979 to achieve full employment and support, politically and materially, a comprehensive welfare state.

Today, the welfare state is facing an unprecedented attack from the ConDem Coalition. The very poorest and most vulnerable are under attack as the Tories plan the slashing of welfare budgets by £20bn. At the same time the wealth ‘appropriated’ by the super rich is increasing exponentially; since 2000 the richest 1000 people have saw their riches go up by £250bn, while only last month the rich list showed how the wealth of the richest has reached record levels. Yes, the great money trick is still thriving 100 years later!

Tressell was ahead of his time in seeking explanations why and how such injustices happen. In discussing the local Mayor and his relationship and involvement with business, Tressell touched upon the cosy relationship between business and politics and how inequality and the accumulation of capital are facilitated by politics and legislation.

Consider attacks on trade union rights, privatisations, and real term cuts to workers wages just as we see cuts to businesses taxes and top levels of personal taxation. In addition we need only look at the current economic crisis, especially in the Eurozone, to see how governments and supranational institutions prop up and help capital in the midst of its own ineptitude.

Tressell also noted the role of the Media. The Obscura could be one of any current mainstream TV or Radio stations or Daily or Sunday Newspaper (with the honourable exception of the Morning Star). Turn on the news or read a paper and according to the mainstream media, there is no alternative to austerity.

Frozen and reduced wages are necessary as are cuts to public services; we all need to suffer the pain; we are all in it together; all are phrases and notions that go unchallenged by the dominant media. Left unsaid is the discussion of alternatives and challenging the status quo; perhaps through re-distributive progressive taxation or tackling tax avoidance and evasion. Perish the thought of such blasphemous thinking!

Perhaps the central theme in the book was how the surplus value enjoyed by the bosses was provided by the workers who acted, in essence, as ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. Tressell has been criticised for being too harsh on the workers who were seemingly indifferent to their working conditions. Maybe he is, however I think Tressell shows that the real culprit here is the system which allows workers to always be just one wage packet away from destitution and hunger. No wonder there was a climate of fear in Mugsborough.

Tressell does not stop at outlining the failings, and the accomplices of the current system. He raises the perennial question of what are we going to do about it and how are we going to do it. Do we seek to rip it up and start again, as Frank Owen recommends? Or do we, as Barrington suggests, use a Parliamentary workers party as a vehicle to reform this flawed and defective system that’s called capitalism?

These are perpetual questions over strategy and ethos that workers need to ask again today. I don’t have the space to explore these fundamental questions here. Although one observation I would make is that for Barrington’s tactic to work the workers’ party must remind itself that it is a workers’ party….

Townsend Productions have done working people across the UK and Scotland a great service by staging this play. It reminds us of the key issues faced by workers and the people of this country, that the substantive issues we have to consider are class-based and about the distribution of resources rather than arguments over borders.

Likewise I commend Unite Scotland. Once again they are leading the way in raising awareness and using theatre and education as a means to stir people into action; challenging the inequities that workers faced in the time of Tressell and, scandalously, are now facing once again in 2012.

ENDS

Townsend Productions, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’  will be running everyday at the Edinburgh Fringe from 1st – 27th August, 12PM at the Assembly George Square Two. Tickets can be purchased online now.

Unite Scotland will also host a further special event in support of the play’s run at the Scottish Parliament’s ‘Festival of Politics’ : 

Revisiting the themes of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ An evening of working class debate, entertainment, beer & sandwiches. 

Tuesday 31st July, Committee Room 1, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, from 6PM to 9PM.

To confirm your attendance at the Scottish Parliament event, please contact Tommy Kane on 07947826808 or tommy.kane@scottish.parliament.uk

You can also get all the up to date information on the play via: www.townsendproductions.org.uk

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