Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

OBITUARY: Ken Coates

In Obiturary on October 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm


KEN COATES, who died suddenly earlier this summer, will be sorely missed by many who campaigned with him for peace, industrial democracy – and against the humbug and corruption of modern capitalist society.

He was one of many on the left who emerged from the ferment of ideas that had such an impact on radical politics in the 1960s. Many of those who were involved have since fallen by the wayside, or veered to the right, and the cover of respectability. Ken Coates, though, maintained his principles to the end, though he adapted his ideas to the changing times and changing circumstances in the decades that followed.

His major contributions were to the nuclear disarmament movement, and to the development of ideas on industrial democracy. He helped to establish the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and, with colleagues, campaigned for a “nuclear free Europe”. Through meetings and conferences this brought him into touch with many leading campaigners throughout Europe – including some in the emerging Green movement.

Ken also served for ten years as a Labour MEP, using the European Parliament to promote and develop his ideas.

But his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1998 ended his career as a parliamentarian.

INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACY: In the early 1970s, industry in the UK was facing dramatic change. Changing technology, an uncertain economic climate and increasing competition from abroad meant that workers were not only threatened by changing work patterns but also by the loss of their jobs. Heavy industry, particularly, was under threat, with plants facing closure and mass redundancies.

Ken Coates helped to form the Institute for Workers’ Control (IWC). Through its publications and through conferences, its ideas were spread throughout the trade union movement and beyond.

Many trade unionists were coming to realise that strike action wasn’t enough in the face of factory closures and mass redundancies. An example was in Scotland where Upper Clyde Shipyards were facing closure. A mass “work in” by the workforce led by Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie in 1971 forced an about-turn by the Government which provided funds to keep the shipyards open – at least for a while.

Meanwhile the IWC was developing ideas for alternative production in firms and factories facing closure. Out of this came the plan drawn up by Lucas Aerospace shop stewards, for the production of socially useful goods. Again, it attracted popular support – but not from the management at Lucas!

Attending conferences of the IWC was always an interesting and stimulating experience. Those who attended came from a wide spectrum of the left – with the trade union movement always well represented. For some, the notion of industrial democracy meant (as they say these days) “thinking outside the box”. Others, like Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, worked closely with Ken Coates to try to bring democracy to decision making in industry. It involved attempting to create a trade union response that went beyond constant opposition to a recalcitrant and self-seeking management!

WORKER CO-OPS: But the ideas that flowed out from the IWC (not to mention the example of the Upper Clyde work-in) stimulated a new interest in worker co-operatives. Amongst those who was influenced by the trend was Tony Benn, who had been a Government minister. It was he that gave backing to three worker co-ops – at Triumph motorcycles, The Scottish Daily News and Bendix washing machines. Sadly, all three failed (though it’s significant that Triumph survived under private ownership, and today is the only major UK motorcycle manufacturer still in business). But many other worker co-operatives that came into being at the time continue to this day – and more are still being formed as workers attempt to control their own destinies.

Ken’s other contribution was as editor of The Spokesman magazine. This was produced by a small team, including , Tony Simpson, Tony Topham and Ken Fleet on behalf of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.

The latest issue was nearly complete when Ken died suddenly. The front cover is reproduced below. It contains tributes from those who knew him and worked with him – in Britain and throughout Europe – together with a quote from Ken himself:

“I have always believed that true socialism will be made by the people themselves, the real beneficiaries. That was the significant achievement of the Institute for Workers Control, because it encouraged people to work out their own ideas about what might constitute democracy in industry.”

(Ken Coates, June 25, 2010)


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