Ken Coates who has died at the age of 79 of a suspected heart attack was actively engaged in radical British politics, writing and as ever bubbling with new ideas almost hours before he passed away. Barely a week before he had been enthusing me about the need for what he saw as a ‘Labour Perestroika’, and had sent a copy of a letter that he had written to one of the hopeful contestants for the Labour leadership, Ed Miliband in May, who Ken believed presented the best chance for Labour to escape its recent, dismal past, a past that incidentally had seen Ken, in his incarnation as a truly internationalist Labour MEP, thrown out of the Party in 1998. That expulsion – it hadn’t been the first – was over the Blairite revision of Clause IV of the party’s constitution which promised ‘common ownership’, but as ever with Ken Coates, that most original of working class intellectuals, his revolt was based upon principles and ideas that his tormentors simply wouldn’t have understood. In his letter to Ed Miliband, Ken wrote “Clause IV was a highly imperfect document, much aggravated by the false identification of common ownership with Morrisonian nationalisation. I railed against these when I was meeting with your father while you played under the kitchen table”. Perhaps Ed Miliband still hides under the kitchen table, for Coates never received a reply.
Ken Coates’ deep held, lifelong principles were punctuated by a series of clashes with authority, whether it be the Communist Party back in 1948 over his opposition to Stalin’s attacks on Tito, and ditto the crushing of the Hungarian revolt in 1956, and pre-dating this, with the British military authorities. He refused to accept the draft into the army at that time pre-occupied fighting Communist guerrillas in the jungles of Malaya. Instead he opted to work in the Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire coalfields for eight years as a miner. Years later as the local MEP, he was to lead a spirited – but ultimately doomed – battle to keep his old colliery, Bilsthorpe open. Ken Coates’ experiences in the coalfields led him to become the seminal figure in the Institute for Workers Control, which militated for more democracy in the workplace, and for ‘workers plans’ for alternative production to meet social need – which included the successful Meriden workers co-operate and the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards plans to convert arms production to socially useful products such as kidney machines and early plans for hybrid road and rail buses.
Others will remember Ken Coates for his work with Bertrand Russell in the campaign against nuclear weapons, and with similar minded campaigners, the launch of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in 1966, which organised some of the biggest demonstrations ever seen in Britain.
Despite the innumerable setbacks that would have floored any lesser individual, Ken Coates remained one of life’s optimists. He remained as Editor of The Spokesman, the journal of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, and continued writing and pamphleteering right up until the end. His work as a Labour Euro MEP – his initiatives for an EU wide Pensioners Parliament and the Convention for Full Employment went hand in glove with his integrationist, pro Euro views, but suffused as always with his fierce belief that working people deserved jobs, justice and peace.
It may be said of Ken Coates that so many of his achievements came despite of, rather than because of, the British Labour Party, a sad reflection of what is perhaps an engrained conservatism and fear of change and ideas that may be endemic to these islands.