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.

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

Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh

#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

How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank

The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava

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

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform

Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out

Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant