The Foundation needs you

Like me, you must be sick of switching on the television or radio or opening a newspaper and wondering whether half of the writers and commentators are living in the same world as the rest of us. Or perhaps its the same world, just a different century.

We’re living in the middle of a worldwide crisis of economics and politics. In Scotland we’re now seeing the beginning of a serious social crisis as well as the impact of austerity begins to hit households. But what is it that half of our commentators want to talk about?

Mostly we seem to be getting more or less the same story we got when ‘everything was fine’ – or back in the days where banks and businesses were running up giant hidden debts and liabilities but calling it ‘economic growth’. Before things fell apart it was all about privatisation, attacking workers’ rights, giving more money and power to big corporations and cutting back the public sector. And now? Well, if you believed the comment pages in the morning papers, the answer to the crisis is the same as the madness that caused it.

We’ve made a great start with the Foundation but we don’t have a sugar-daddy. If we’re going to keep up the pressure we need your financial help

In Scotland things are a bit different. The political parties most gung-ho about cutting the public sector and privatising anything that doesn’t move are nowhere near power. Things like the privatisation of Scottish Water are just not on the agenda. And yet sometimes it seems like every second person on Newsnight Scotland is there to tell us that we’re all making a mistake by not handing the private sector highly valuable public assets.

It was this frustration that led us to set up the Jimmy Reid Foundation. It seemed crazy that Scotland has had a number of right-wing think tanks but not a real left-wing one. This is even more important because of the way that lobby groups (like the CBI) and think tanks have started to almost merge into one and other. It just meant that way too many of the voices whispering into the ears of journalists and politicians were saying the same thing.

Scotland needs a strong, unified voice from the left. There has been too much energy spent fighting ourselves and not enough spent picking a few big ideas we want to see become reality in Scotland. We decided that if this was going to happen we needed three things.

First we needed to support and bring together people who can think up the big ideas which will change Scotland. There are lots of very clever and thoughtful people on the left in Scotland but they are mostly very involved in political parties, academia or social campaigning. And neither political parties nor campaigning groups are in the best place to step back and do the thinking because they are permanently under pressure just to keep going. People have day jobs and an awful lot of people already see their free time taken up by campaigning. There needs to be a way to step back and think a bit more about the big picture and setting up the Foundation seemed like a good way to try.

Second, we needed to get over the problem of a divided left. It is odd that the part of the UK which seems most dominated by left-wing politics is also the bit of the UK where left-wing politicians seem to find it hardest to work together. Split between the SNP, Labour, the Greens, the SSP, Solidarity, the Communist parties and more, too much energy goes into fighting ourselves. We thought that if we could try and bring people together round specific ideas (and not new organisations or a new party) it would be the best possible way of realising the real strength of the left.

And thirdly, we need to be really on the ball about how we do things. Other think tanks and all of the big business groups have an army of professional media companies and specialist lobbyists who make sure that they nail home the messages they want journalists and politicians to hear. The left has never been that professional in the past and sometimes the ‘make do and mend’ attitude has served us well. But it does mean that we give the other side too much of a free run when it comes to setting the agenda in the press and the parliament. So the Foundation is also about being a bit more professional about getting the message out.

We launched our fundraising campaign in August and then we spent six months working really hard to get everything set up. We have the support of a group of high-profile Patrons. We have put together a Project Board to steer the work of the Foundation and we’ve managed to get some really good people. We had to do all the admin and get websites set up and start to make contacts and so on.

But above all we had to produce some really good work. We knew from the outset that we would only be considered as good as the reports we produced and so we started working away to try and get a string of important pieces of work going. And it came to a head when we launched our first report at the beginning of February.

Written by Jim and Margaret Cuthbert it looked at public sector procurement in Scotland and found big problems and big opportunities. Now public sector procurement isn’t necessarily a subject that keeps me awake at night but it was the perfect project for our first report. What we found was that big business had shaped procurement policy in Scotland in ways that suited it – often at the expense of smaller business and the wider public interest.

Scotland spends £9bn on public procurement every year and yet the policy that dictates how that money is spent makes no mention of economic development never mind social benefit. It was designed on the assumption that bigger is cheaper and cheaper is better. And so we have just about the biggest and most expensive procurement contracts in Europe.

With just a little bit of a change in policy we could turn this round, addition conditions to contracts to benefit communities and the environment, designing contracts so smaller Scottish businesses have a chance of winning them and making sure that we both encourage and retain research and development expertise.

This has been raised in the past and the response was that nothing could be done because of EU law, but the report makes clear that this is nonsense and that other countries already do exactly that.

All of this is exactly what we wanted to do – proper evidence not slogans, real workable ideas not polemics, challenging vested interests claiming that corporate interests and the public interest are really the same thing. And it seems like it has had a real effect. The coverage we got for the report was wonderful and already the Scottish Government says it is going to take on board the recommendations in the report. We’re going to do some follow-up work, but we think that the Foundation is already having an impact on life in Scotland.

While all this was happening we were launching our website. At first we thought of the website as just a place to keep reports, but since we announced the Foundation everything has changed. We’ve been overwhelmed (and not a little surprised) by just how many people want to be involved with the Foundation and its work. People told us that they wanted to be able to make suggestions about our work programme in a really open and democratic way (not just a think tank of experts talking down to the rest). So we’ve done it. And people told us they wanted to be part of a community, to talk and debate the state of Scottish, UK and world politics. So we created the Network, exactly that. It is free to join and every day on our website there is analysis of the days news that you can debate and discuss with others that feel the same way. We’ve got a news section, a diary of events, a library and many more resources we think people will find useful.

But we aren’t being knocked down by large corporate donations falling through the letterbox. We’ve made a great start with the Foundation but we don’t have a sugar-daddy. If we’re going to keep up the pressure we need your financial help. If you go onto the website you’ll find the opportunity to give us a regular donation. Even £3 or £5 a month will make an enormous difference to us. It is the only way we think we can keep building on our good start.

So please help by donating if you can, please join the Network and get active, and please contribute your own ideas to our work. It is the kind of open, inclusive and radical project Jimmy himself would have loved and we hope it will prove a fitting legacy.

But it’s not about legacy, its about changing Scotland now. We hope you’ll join us and play your part.