Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ken Coates

Ken Coates died on Sunday. He had a great capacity for what others would call work; whether it was political writing, academic output, establishing bodies which integrated publishing with group organisation, being a member of the European Parliament or participating in the dialectics of debate with adult students or political activists.

But none of the above were chores to Ken. What he saw as the real work he undertook in his life was when he was a coalminer from around the ages of 18 to 26. But even (or especially) in those days he learnt a great deal from various of his workmates and those he socialised with about Trade Unionism and Labour Movement Politics. So when he went to Nottingham University to study Sociology in what I will later show was the key political year of 1956, he talked of having discovered a new found freedom which lasted right throughout the week - and for every week. He had moved into a world which was to enable him to pursue two of his related passions - adult education and socialism. No longer did he have to share his precious time with coal getting. When he moved to be a Tutor in Adult Education (also at Nottingham University) he directed his attention to work with miners and other workers, whom he wished to share his newly found freedoms with.

I came to know Ken gradually when I moved into a parallel world of industrial day-release teaching for Trade Unionists (especially miners) at Sheffield University. This was in 1966 when Ken was launching the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which my wife and I marched with in a protest outside the Labour Party Conference in Scarborough the following year. Then it was on to a huge fringe meeting which was a precursor of the Institute of Workers' Control which Ken helped launch formally the following year.

Ken's political instinct was always to develop initiatives which would draw people together in ways that would expand their understandings and would thus spread socialist ideas. These included War Crime Tribunals, opposing the war in Vietnam, European Nuclear Disarmament, Industrial Democracy, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, a Pensioner's Parliament, an Assembly of Disabled People, a Convention for Full Employment and Spokesmen Books.

Throughout such activities he published masses of related books and articles (some are shown here), whilst editing collections of essays. He seldom worked alone. He worked particularly well with the late Tony Topham, who was a fellow adult tutor at Hull University. Their joint work was normally concentrated around the issue of Industrial Democracy, but they also produced a majestic 900 page work on the 1870-1922 formation of the Transport and General Workers' Union , entitled "The Making of the Labour Movement" (Spokesmen paperback edition 1994). My own copy being a gift from Ken to which he added his fraternal greetings.

In 1970 he came to major public attention when a study of poverty in the St Ann's district of Nottingham was published as a Penguin Special in joint authorship with Richard Silburn, entitled "Poverty : The Forgotten Englishman". He worked with Silburn on related work. He also collaborated closely with Michael Barratt Brown who ran the Industrial Day-Release programme from Sheffield University were I was one of a group of eight tutors teaching on the courses. Ken and Michael's joint work included "The Blair Revelation: Deliverance for Whom?" (Spokesman. 1996) which indicated that Ken would not have an easy relationship with the New Labour hierarchy.

Ken had stood as Labour candidate in Nottingham South in 1983. And although he lost, he had the distinction of having the late Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband canvassing for him with the help of his two sons David and Ed. He then became a Labour Member of the European Parliament from 1989 to 1999. In 1994 his seat encompassed the area of my own parliamentary seat in North East Derbyshire, where we worked together especially on environmental problems which blighted the area.

But the crunch came in 1997. First he was suspended by the Labour Group in Europe for failing to accept the arrangements they had put in place for the shortlisting of candidates for the coming Euro Elections. Tony Benn in my neighbouring seat Chesterfield and myself defended Ken's right to express his view. But towards the end of 1998 he joined the Green's Group in the European Parliament. He had clearly placed himself outside rules which the Labour hierarchy were only too keen to use. I tried to pursued him to pull back from his position, pointing out that there was still scope for rebellion against New Labour at Westminster at least, where 47 of us had voted in the first major rebellion against New Labour Whips over Single Parent Benefits. But Ken was never going to settle for being a loyal grouser.

Ken's uneasy relationship with Labour's officialdom had in fact led to his expulsion from the Party back in 1965. He fought his corner until 1969 before he was re-instated. His story and the wider politics of the period are covered in his book "The Crisis of British Socialism - Essays on the Rise of Harold Wilson and the Fall of the Labour Party" (Spokesman 1971). If he was alienated by Wilson, there is no way that he would continue to operate peacefully under Blair.

1956 (as I earlier indicated) was a huge year for socialists. It saw the Khrushchev Revelations about Stalin, the Suez Invasion, the Soviet Invasion of Hungary and revisionist advance in the Labour Party with Tony Crosland's publication "The Future of Socialism". Ken had been in the Communist Party up to then. But even then he had disagreed with an earlier line that Stalin had taken against Tito (where Yugoslavian Communism developed the concept of Worker Self Management which related closely to Ken's later work with the Institute of Workers' Control). For a period as Ken became an adult student he worked with those who established the International Marxist Group and he had a period on the board of International Socialism. He now seemed to be a Trotskyist.

In many ways Communism and Trotskyism are opposing socialist approaches. But Ken soon developed his own synthesis out of these to fit in with British (and later European) circumstances. He had already been drawn into activity with the New left of the late 1950s, with figures such as E.P.Thompson, Michael Barratt Brown and Ralph Miliband. What emerged for Ken was working with the left of the Labour Party where he could, but never surrendering to right wing practices. But it only made sense to Ken for him to spend energy in opposing the leadership of say Wilson and Blair, if this was only part of his main activity of building towards socialism via key issues such as Worker's Control and Environmental Protection.

We should certainly not dismiss his life as being full of heroic failures. The War Crime Tribunal was a major initiative and industrial democracy made inroads via Lucas Aerospace and others. His work for five years as President of the Human Rights Committee of the European Parliament was substantial. Above all he touched the lives of many as a tutor, writer and a political activist. Any of us would have been proud to have delivered a fraction of what he achieved from his "newly found freedom".


Unknown said...

I'm saddened to hear of the death of Ken Coates. I found inspiring his work on the history of struggles for industrial democracy and environmental sustainability.

The wave of worker co-operatives established out of ailing firms during the 70s are now derided for being failures, and the debates around workplace democracy seem distant - but I hope Ken's passing might cause some reflection within our movement on how to respond to current challenges working people face.

Harry Barnes said...

James : I have had a look at your blog for the first time and will place it on my links.

On your item about the co-operative movement, I am afraid that I have just got round to joining the Co-operative Party although I first joined the Labour Party in 1957.

Harry Barnes said...

James : I can't manage to access your comment box, but this link on the Co-ops and the Co-operative Party might interest you -

calgacus said...

Sorry to hear about this - he was a very principled person.