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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.

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