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From: Labour & Trade Union Review: Editorials
Date: July, 2010
By: Editorial

The Myth of Ken Coates


Ken Coates died on 27th June, 2010. Our sister magazine, Problems of Capitalism and Socialism, extensively covered Ken Coates' successful blocking of the industrial democracy proposals made in the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy in 1977. Given that coverage there should have been no need to say any more following Coates' death. But the statement below from John Palmer's obituary for Coates in the Guardian on 30th June makes some comment necessary. Otherwise anyone unaware of what went on in the labour movement in the mid- to late seventies would be left with a completely false impression.

"Two years later [1968 by - L&TUR], the launch of the Institute for Workers' Control coincided with an upsurge in rank and file trade union militancy and attracted the support of large numbers of shop stewards, as well as influential union leaders such as Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union and Hugh Scanlon of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. Coates' focus on achieving reforms designed to increase the role of workers in running their enterprises - including the Bullock Report on industrial democracy of 1977 - attracted criticism from more orthodox Marxists."

Anyone reading this would the clear impression that Coates supported the biggest reform of the Labour government - the Bullock Report. The truth was the exact opposite. Coates was Bullock's most implacable enemy.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson set up the Bullock Committee in 1976 with instructions to find a formula for the democratisation of all major companies (initially those with more than 2,000 workers) in the private sector. Another committee was examining democratisation in the state sector.

Bullock proposed that workers and shareholders should have an equal number of seats on the supervisory board of directors and that there should be a smaller number of "neutral" seats to be agreed on by the two main groups. The worker directors were to be elected through trade union machinery - unlike the industrial democracy system in Germany. Given the huge power of the unions, the smaller group would, if anything be pro-worker, as indeed might a good number of shareholders.

No sooner was the report published, it was condemned by Hugh Scanlon. "It is management's right to manage", he declared. This was a very widespread opinion which reflected a trade union view that workers and unions should have nothing to do with running companies but should continue the system of confrontational bargaining between workers and employers. The unions had a traditional role in the class struggle and many were determined to keep things as they were. (This "managements right to manage" was a position also taken by Arthur Scargill when industrial democracy was proposed for the coal industry.

Ken Coates virulently opposed the Bullock Report at an IWC Conference held following its publication. Coates' position was somewhere between the Scanlon position and that of people like Neil Kinnock and the Communist Party who took an ultra-left stand saying that Bullock was a sell-out, a compromise with capitalism, and all the rest. He described the Bullock "2x+y" proposal as castration.

But Coates' opposition did not begin with the issuing of the Bullock Report. At the same Conference Audrey Wise MP said that Coates had predicted the Report, or something like it, while the Committee was still sitting, and warned her about it. She took no notice and was one of its staunchest supporters. Presumably Coates could predict the outcome because he knew how Jack Jones thought, and Jones was probably the most influential member of the Bullock Committee.

(At a recent memorial for Jack Jones, Neil Kinnock went on - and on - about his support for Jones' campaigns in the 70s. He "forgot" to mention that he and Jones were fierce opponents on the issue of workers' control. But there's a lot of that kind of thing about these days!)

People will be puzzled by the fact that something called the Institute for Workers Control should oppose the only measure put forward during its entire existence that would bring about any form of industrial democracy. And it is quite possible, indeed probable, that most people in the IWC were in favour of Bullock. There was no way of telling. There was no way of telling who was or who was not a member of the IWC.

Ken Coates did not just found the IWC, he owned it. Coates owned the IWC by means of his prior ownership of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. It was all a matter of which hat Ken decided to don in the morning. It had no existence apart from him. So when he decided to oppose Bullock, so did the IWC. Never mind that most of its active supporters supported it. They included Jack Jones, Clive Jenkins, leader of the ASTMS union and also a member of the Bullock Committee, Jack Dunn the Kent miners' leader, Peter Heathfield the Derbyshire miners' leader, Harry Newton the IWC treasurer, and a host of other trade unionists and local activists, as well as MPs such as Audrey Wise and Tony Benn.

(Harry Newton died in 1983 and was almost immediately "outed" by MI5 as one of their agents. Unlike Tony Benn who sprang to his defence, Ken Coates did not and said that if Harry was a spy it explained a lot of things. MI5 also put it about that Jack Jones was a spy - though for which side is not clear! That is how these people operate. Newton wasn't the only one to be slandered but as he was dead lots of people felt able to get in on the act. Those blackened included some connected with this magazine - but this had to be by means of a whispering campaign. There will be further comment on the blackening of Harry Newton's name in this magazine.)

Coates lined the IWC up beside Hugh Scanlon, Arthur Scargill, Frank Chapell of the electricians, Neil Kinnock MP, the Communist Party and others on both the right and the left of the labour movement. Those of us in the IWC who supported Bullock warned at the time of the consequences of rejecting Bullock. We warned Coates and anyone else we could reach that nothing more was to be had through "free collective bargaining". Class war had to be developed beyond so-called free collective bargaining by beginning to put the economy under the control of the working class. The unions were strong enough to make the bosses bow to their will. But at a certain stage this would simply turn into an economy-wrecking exercise until such time as they were given a terrible beating. And that time could not be far off.

Sure enough, as soon as Bullock was killed off, we got an upsurge in strikes, culminating in the "Winter of Discontent" which destroyed the Labour government - the last real Labour government. Along came Mrs. Thatcher. Trade union power was no more and the unions, or those that survived, became the useless hulks that we see today.