Thursday 08 July 2010
Ken Coates (Obituary, 2 July), was an inspirational figure within Nottingham University beyond his own department, as I found when he used the ringing phrase, "contrary to the laws of natural justice" while enlisting my support as a history student against his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1965, writes Giles Oakley.
He had been expelled at a secretive emergency meeting called when he couldn't attend, giving him no chance to defend himself or rally support. When I and other party members came to the next routine ward meeting with the intention of raising the issue and getting the expulsion overturned we found the doors locked and a belligerent line of policemen barring our passage. Days later I received a letter from the national general secretary informing me that I, too, had been expelled, with no explanation given. Such was my introduction to Labour-machine politics in response to dissidence, rendered somewhat farcical by the ease with which I was able to slip back into membership in my home town. It was with wry amusement that I noticed the name of the regional organiser most ruthlessly behind Ken's expulsion in '65 among those creating the break-away Social Democrats in the 1980s.
Although he'll be remembered for his peace movement activism and for his promotion of workers' control, it was Ken's poverty campaigning that resonated most with me and many others in Nottingham. In 1967 he and fellow academic Richard Silburn set up a study group which produced the eye-opening and humane report St Ann's: Poverty, deprivation and morale in a Nottingham Community (with evocative photos by a student Donald Cooper, now best known as a theatre photographer). That led to the better-known Penguin Special, Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman, in 1970.
I like to remember Ken as a free-spirited and pugnacious speaker with an often hilarious line in invective which was liberating in its irreverence towards those in power. This undoubtedly made him enemies, but inside the trenchant polemicist there was also a quieter educationalist. On one occasion, in a University Labour Club meeting he had been witheringly dismissive of the "revisionism" of Tony Crosland (then Secretary of State for Education in the Harold Wilson government) specifically targeting his widely influential book The Future of Socialism (1956). When I timidly admitted that I rather liked Crosland (despite his raising of student fees), Ken gave me a copy of Crosland's book, clearly in a spirit of encouragement of debate and wider thought, without regard for his own hostile views. Nor did he hold it against me when, having read the book, I had to admit I still rather liked Crosland.
It's a tragedy Labour so often shows its dispiriting authoritarian streak when confronted by challenging internal critics of integrity such as Ken. Let's hope his career will provider reminders of how things might be handled in a more open way in future.
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