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.



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