By Ross Bradshaw
Resist Much, Obey Little edited by Tony Simpson (Spokesman, £6.00)
The last time I met Ken Coates – the subject of this special issue of The Spokesman – was at Lowdham Book Festival in Nottinghamshire a few years ago. We’d invited Ken along to speak at an unticketed event in a marquee. His profile had rather faded and we were not expecting many people, but it was his first public appearance for some time and the venue was packed. There was no mike either so Ken struggled to make himself heard – nobody seemed to mind, they just wanted to come along and show him support. Afterwards Ken complained that he was losing his sight – I said that must be hard for him, given his connection to books. “It’s not that,” he replied, “the problem is I can’t cross the fucking road on my own.” He was clearly in no great health, but continued to publish and to edit The Spokesman as he had for the previous forty years. I’d ring him at home occasionally – it was a great treat to hear him go off on one against the Blairites.
Ken died in 2010 after a long career on the left. He had been a miner, turned adult education lecturer who became a politician. He started his political life as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, but left, with others in Nottingham, taking Tito’s side against Stalin. With others he set up the organisation that became the International Marxist Group though his involvement with Trotskyism did not last. He became prominent in the Labour Party, his first expulsion being connected to the Vietnam War, his second – left unchallenged – followed his very public criticism of Blairism at a time when Ken was an MEP. Subsequently, with Hugh Kerr, he set up the short-lived Independent Labour Network before concentrating his energies on writing, Spokesman Books and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.
This special issue of The Spokesman, comprising a set of essays on aspects of Ken Coates’ life, is the nearest we have to an autobiography or biography. It would be good to see a full biography as the journal is admittedly partial in its coverage. A prolific writer and pamphleteer, Ken resisted writing his own memoir – too many things to do of more importance – but the journal hints at how interesting such a memoir might have been by including two rare autobiographical articles. The first is on his early years as a miner (including, astonishingly, some correspondence with the playwright Sean O’Casey), the second describing why he set up the Institute for Workers’ Control (IWC) in 1968. Coates was always a visionary but balanced that with an understanding of the realities of the labour movement. This comes across in interview where he described falling out with Tony Benn over the miners’ strike. Like Bert Ramelson – the CPGB’s industrial organiser – Ken Coates believed that the strike could not be won, saying “I don’t blame Tony very much for this because it was a failure of generalship of Arthur Scargill who, as the leader of the strikers, is supposed to know what his men want to do and can take.” The falling out with Benn was not to last, indeed, in this volume Benn remarks that “history will be very kind to Ken”.
This short volume only touches on some of Ken Coates’ achievements – the consequences of the book Poverty: the forgotten Englishman, his campaign to rehabilitate Nikolai Bukharin, the founding of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, his involvement with END (European Nuclear Disarmament) which aimed to link the peace movement in the west with dissidents in the East, his considerable work as an MEP, a vast output of books, pamphlets and more ephemeral writing.
Unlike many politicians, Ken Coates has left a legacy. Though the IWC is long gone, the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation continues, as does Spokesman Books and the Russell Press. Someone should definitely write a full biography.