An awkward customer

Michael Barratt Brown celebrates the achievements of his close friend and comrade Ken Coates, pointing to their wider importance for us all

July 25, 2010
5 min read

Ken Coates, who died on 27 June, was a socialist of enormous influence and talent. He was a chief advocate of so many left-wing causes in Britain and Europe that merely to list them hardly does justice to his energy and imagination. They include the Institute for Workers’ Control, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and its tribunals, the Russell Press (which for many years printed Red Pepper), the Campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament, the European Conventions for Full Employment, the European Network for Peace and Human Rights and its Brussels conferences, the European Labour Forum magazine, the Spokesman journal and the Spokesman Publishing House.

Ken was born into a middle class family, but when called up in the post-1945 conscription chose to work in the coal mines. He became thereafter not only an active trade unionist but a sympathiser with all the aspirations of working class militants.

He was largely self-taught. Though he went to university, it was only after he had been down the coal mines and begun to share the aspirations and solidarity of the miners. He read very widely – poetry, politics, history, biography, especially of rebels. He didn’t think much of most university courses, and used to quote George Bernard Shaw: ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ and add ‘Those who can’t teach, teach the teachers.’

He had extremely strong likes and dislikes, especially in politics. But if he found someone who held a view he disagreed with, he would give that person a copy of the best possible statement of that view to think about as well as his own views.

He was suspicious of all forms of authority and believed that workers of all sorts should and could manage their own work organisation. But he was not an anarchist. Hard decisions had to be made, and too much time should not be taken up in nattering.

Ken’s experience as a coal miner inspired his teaching of miners who came to Nottingham University for day release courses in politics, economics and sociology. This in turn led him in 1968 to create the Institute for Workers’ Control. The institute brought together grass-roots trade unionists and leaders such as Hugh Scanlon in a succession of conferences that played a unique political role in linking industrial strategy to industrial democracy. The driving force came from shop stewards but Tony Benn’s brief spell as minister of industry provided a stimulus. Ken typically saw the opportunity and facilitated the collaboration.

The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation was set up in 1963, with the money Russell received after winning the Nobel Prize. Ken’s meeting with Russell arose out of the Cuban missile crisis and Russell’s actions in support of nuclear disarmament. Ken became secretary and then chairman of the foundation and organised a number of tribunals arraigning those who had abused human rights.

Another sphere of activity was with the Campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s, a Europe-wide movement for a ‘nuclear-free Europe from Poland to Portugal’.

For ten years Ken was a member of the European Parliament, where he soon established himself as a leading figure – first on human rights issues, then in defence of pensioners and a Pensioners’ Parliament, then in working with Stuart Holland to support Jacques Delors’ plans for developing full employment as part of ‘Social Europe’. Ken’s two reports on employment were carried almost unanimously by the parliament, but were ignored by national governments. The proposals challenged Thatcher’s then newly-established economic orthodoxy of leaving the economy to the vagaries of the market, the results of which, as Ken had warned, became horribly clear in the financial crisis that began in 2008.

Ken’s output of books and other writings was voluminous. He was a great collaborator – in his study of poverty in St Anne’s, Nottingham, with Richard Silburn; in his magisterial history of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and Essays in Industrial Democracy with Tony Topham; in his European Recovery Programme and his Full Employment for Europe with Stuart Holland; in his study of the miners Community under Attack; and in The Blair Revelation with myself.

Ken’s honesty in all his dealings often made him an awkward customer. He was twice expelled from the Labour Party, once for disagreeing with Harold Wilson over Vietnam and then for rejecting the proposed arrangement for electing members of the European Parliament, which destroyed the constituency basis of representation. Long before Blair was elected prime minister, Ken stated his objections to Blair’s invention of New Labour and rejection of the Labour Party’s Clause Four, which advocated social ownership and the best possible means of popular control.

In the years of New Labour Ken concentrated his fire through the Spokesman and other publications on challenging Blair’s commitment to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on exposing the destruction of human rights they involved. It seemed like a wholly negative programme, but everything he did had a positive aim to it, in keeping alive the hope of a different world.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill