Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Ken Coates 1930-2010

I have to say I was deeply saddened to hear that Ken Coates, a key voice on the left in Britain for a generation, had died. I had arranged to interview him for the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review but before I could make the trip to his home in Derbyshire I heard the sad news. He occupied an important political space here in the UK firmly on the left in both the peace and labour movements but occupying a firmly syndicalist position.

Why should a reader of ASR be interested in Ken? I would argue his key contribution was his role in the formation of the Institute for Workers Control in 1968. In June this year in one of his last published pieces he outlined his philosophy,

“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. This put paid to Fabian myths about how our teachers always new best, even if that experience was short lived.”

As he said in the introduction to Workers Control (Another World is Possible, Arguments from the Institute for Workers Control, Spokesman, 2003),

“For a number of years the IWC was able to organise widespread discussions on all aspects of industrial democracy, and published dozens of pamphlets and books which helped popularise the idea the idea. Its ideas found their way into the TUC through bargaining courses and into the machinery of collective bargaining, as they were taken up by workers’ representatives.
Under Thatcher, with mass unemployment, anti-union laws and the development of a defensive style of trade unionism, notions of workers’ control were put on the back burner. But they remain as relevant as ever, even if the circumstances in which they will henceforward find application are markedly different.”

Coates writings also won the support for the idea of building a strong sector of worker’s co-operatives and there where some notable experiments that would challenge the dominant method of industrial production. These ideas had a particular impact on amongst others the shop stewards of what was then the Lucas Aerospace Group. They developed plans for alternative socially useful production instead of arms manufacture.

As well as helping workers formulate these types of plans he also helped to reclaim this strand of labour history. The work he did with Tony Topham in researching the early history of the Transport and General Workers Union which he argued was a significant development in the movement for workers’ control. That book The Making of the Labour Movement ( Spokesman1994) , is a magisterial piece of work.

They dedicated it to,

“The memory of the pioneers, who dreamed of One Big Union, and to the success of their heirs, the members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union.”

The fact that the movement for workers’ control goes right back to the beginning of the industrial revolution is well documented in the ‘Readings and Witnesses for Workers’ Control’, Edited by Coates and Topham (Republished by Spokesman 2005).

Once again here and now in 2010, we find, as they say in the introduction to that book “that trade unions have become the bedrock of effective oppositional resistance”. This is certainly the case here in the UK were the Con-Dem coalition government is hell bent on using the current economic crisis to shrink the state and attack the conditions of workers.

This is exactly what Coates predicted in his last editorial for the Spokesman. This will be a tough fight and one that Ken will not be in to share his wisdom and guidance but there will also be new opportunities for workers to take control of their enterprises a demand that continuously rises to the surface.

Ken has the honour and distinction of being expelled from the Labour Party twice!
No wonder when he wrote things like this;

“In Britain, in 1981, three million people will soon be without work. Enterprise is a word which now means inertia and greed. Authority is a widely used synonym for unreasonableness. But private property once meant that “town air is free air”, because the guildsman’s scissors or hammers were the basis of his independent livelihood. Now it means trans-national companies and wholesale displacement of labour. Words change when people change, and we can join our forces to create a vocabulary in which enterprise becomes in truth a shared effort to improvement and mutual care, and authority is understood as un-coerced admiration for example, and nothing more.

Generations of our forebears, in times when windmills were thought to be sophisticated inventions, could imagine a world in which each might grow in the love, care, and effort of others, and all might take uninhibited delight in the achievements of each. Such Utopian thoughts have been unfashionable in an age of lasers, micro-chips and revisionism. But they are stirring again, and however troublesome they may be to media men and entrepreneurs, the sense they make will become apparent to millions of good people”.

(Work-ins, Sit-ins and Industrial Democracy, Ken Coates, Spokesman, 1981).

Twenty years later once again we face the same challenges but thanks to Ken we will know where we are and what we need to do next!

(All the books referred to in this piece are available from: www.spokesmanbooks.com)

Co-operatives and the "Big Society"

As a co-operator you would probably expect me to argue that every organisation could benefit from being more co-operative, that people are naturally co-operative, that co-operative enterprises are innovative, flexible business models that operate in every sector of the economy. As there are some 800 million members of co-operatives globally, employing 100 million people – more than all the multinational companies put together – I do not need to be convinced that co-operatives are a better way of doing business.

I have to say that internationally, not just here in the UK, the lack of confidence in the welfare state and the lack of trust in the private sector has lead to a renewed interest in co-operative enterprise. Indeed the United Nations General Assembly have designated 2012 the International Year of Co-operatives.

So should I be flattered when the Prime Minister himself argues for more co-operative’s in the economy and goes on to make the case for the transfer of previously state provided public services to the co-op sector?

There is no simple statute in English law on what constitutes a co-operative, indeed currently; we have at least eleven different legal bases for co-operatives in UK law. I maybe looking a gift horse in the mouth but my first instinct is to wonder if David Cameron and I are talking about the same thing.

Clearly there is plenty of room for growth in the sector currently there are only around five thousand co-operative businesses in the UK, even so they have almost 13 million members, employ a quarter of a million people and turnover of £33.5billion. So I am happy to talk to anyone who is genuinely interested in growing the sector.

But are we talking about the same thing? The co-operative identity statement agreed by the International Co-operative Alliance in 1995 says that a co-operative is: An autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.

This is derived from the seven some times called the ‘Rochdale’ principles of co-operation, simply put these are:
1. Voluntary and Open Membership.
2. Democratic Member Control.
3. Member Economic Participation.
4. Autonomy and Independence.
5. Education, Training and Information.
6. Co-operation amongst Co-operatives.
7. Concern for Community.

Clearly some of these are more fundamental than others. Firstly, the enterprise has to be autonomous or independent secondly it has to be under democratic member control. This incorporates the one member one vote principle which ensures the business is people rather than capital controlled, next comes member economic participation which follows since members who have an equal vote are likely to allocate surpluses in a fair way. Voluntary and open membership means that people have the opportunity to join of their own free will. I would argue that these four principles are fundamental in creating the structure and principles for a member owned business.

The other principles are desirable rather than essential but just from these principles it is clear that a co-operative is not something that can be created by decree. The transfer of public undertakings into co-operatives, setting aside if such a change is desirable, will be a long drawn out complex procedure.

There is no doubt that internationally from places that would appear to have little in common like Venezuela and Cuba to the UK the scope for co-operative enterprise has never been greater yet it is something of a cliché that for co-operatives you need co-operators. This requires a huge shift in our business culture and our education system, as well as changes to the legal and financial framework for business in the UK. Currently co-operatives are discriminated against in all these areas. Work will be needed across the piece if we are to see a genuine paradigm shift in the proportion of the economy in the co-operative sector.

Also on a practical level we need more support for co-operative business, with better co-operative business, accountancy, banking and legal advice services across the country. In the tradition of self help both Co-operatives UK and the Co-operative Group are doing sterling work in this area but there needs to be more. There are numerous existing businesses with succession challenges, where the necessary shared commitment, common interest and mutual trust exists and like the recent case of Blackwells Bookshops would benefit from a move to co-operative ownership. That transition could be made that much easier if the right advice and support services were available.

2012 can indeed be the year of the co-operative. The co-operative movement can make a significant contribution to the ‘Big Society’ but it needs more than warm words it needs practical action.