Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
Connor Devine writes that whilst Brexit might be a car crash, we can't just side with an institution responsible for enforcing austerity.
Michael Coates reviews a new film revealing the shocking state of housing inequality in the UK.
The vicious media campaign against trans people is part bigotry, part strategy, writes Roz Kaveney
Jon Trickett MP reports on 'Dickensian' levels of poverty and hardship felt across the UK.
Natasha King busts some myths around the No Borders debate
He was once a radical icon, but now he's a mouthpiece for racism and nationalism. Time to get off stage, writes Michael Calderbank
Consensus seems to have shifted, but austerity is far from over. The chancellor has committed us to yet more years of misery while the rich get richer, writes Richard Seymour.
Frustrated at the idea of another royal wedding? You're not alone. Joana Ramiro argues we should stop idealising a fundamentally undemocratic institution.
Liberal elites are using Russian interference to minimise their own political failures, writes Matt Turner
Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now argues that after years of colonial domination and dodgy trade deals, the UK must make amends and support Zimbabwe in this uncertain time.
Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.
Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu
Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny