Two of the most interesting figures of the labour movement in the 20th Century – Jimmy Reid and Ken Coates – died in recent weeks. Each had a significant impact on the co-operative movement and its renewal in the 1970s and 1980s.
While the two men were very different in many ways, they shared one important characteristic: an ideological journey away from Communist Party roots that they rejected, seeking an outcome instead that offered a form of liberation from the oppression of both capitalism and state controlled communism. Reid and Coates each recognised that the Stalinist system was failing, yet that the corporate capitalist model was not for them an acceptable alternative.
For Jimmy Reid, the moment of truth came in 1971 when, as a Communist Party shop steward at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, he led resistance to government proposals to close the nationalised enterprise. He rejected the traditional workers’ response of leading strike action, arguing (intelligently) that this would merely assist the Government to achieve what it had set out to do. He was not seeking better redundancy pay – he was fighting to keep open the yards, protect jobs and safeguard the welfare of a community.
Instead Reid led a ‘work in’ – and began a new strategy of industrial resistance that drew many supporters from the labour movement who were willing to consider approaches that went beyond simply rejecting bosses’ demands. “We are not going to strike,” said Reid. “We are taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can make these decisions. We are not strikers — we are responsible people and we will conduct ourselves with dignity and discipline.”
This action inspired a cadre of workers’ leaders who were prepared to sit down and challenge business plans by arguing that things could be done better – and perhaps by the workers themselves. One of the strongest advocates of this philosophy was Ken Coates.
While Reid moved from the Communist Party to the Labour Party (he became, unsuccessfully, a Parliamentary candidate) and then onto the SNP (following his disillusion with New Labour), Coates moved from communism, to Trotskyism (he was a founder of the International Marxist Group), to having a career in the Labour Party as an MEP. Coates had either the distinction or dishonour – according to your perspective – of being expelled twice from the Labour Party.
Coates was not merely a political leader, he was also a prolific writer. While he was also strongly engaged in movements for peace and nuclear disarmament, Coates spent much of his life campaigning on one issue – workers’ control of their businesses and industries. Coates (with Tony Topham) created the Institute for Workers’ Control and wrote many leaflets arguing the case with intelligence and persistence. The ideas from the IWC were strongly influential on many political activists in the 1970s and 80s, encouraging many to engage directly in the co-operative movement by setting-up workers’ co-ops. Some emerged eventually as co-operative development workers.
The significance of Coates and Reid went far beyond simply challenging the status quo and making people think. The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ rebellion had a profound influence on Tony Benn – who had been a minister when the government formed UCS by merging smaller yards – and led to his doomed creation of large co-operatives as part of his industrial strategy as trade and industry minister. It was a major factor, too, in the change in the political mood within the Labour Party, encouraging many members to reject the type of acquiescent but apparently directionless leadership represented by James Callaghan and Denis Healey, in particular.
As well as helping to build support for the ‘Benn faction’ in the civil war in which Healey just scraped in as deputy leader (and led to the formation of the SDP), the arguments to which Reid and Coates contributed opened up a profound debate on industrial policy and how the left should respond to the power of immense corporations and their overwhelmingly influence on governments. It is a debate that is far from over.
Coates’ writings won supporters for the idea of building a strong sector of workers’ co-operatives that would challenge the dominant method of industrial production. He worked closely with senior trade unionists such as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon in enabling unions to challenge in a more structured and articulate way the self-serving plans of corporate leaders. In particular, the ideas fed into the work of the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards and the demands, in Coventry in particular, for socially useful production to emerge from arms manufacturers and other large companies facing industrial decline.
The Lucas Aerospace plans and the process by which they were drawn-up fundamentally changed left wing thinking and campaigning in Britain and added political support for co-operatives as an alternative to the stark choice between capitalism or communism. It also influenced parts of the way research was conducted, both within corporations and in universities – legitimising the concept of workers’ rights to challenge corporate plans.
Reid’s achievements were more palpable. He prevented the shipyards from closing and helped to pull down the authority and then the reality of Heath’s government. Some of the UCS operations continue to this day – profitably as part of BAe. Bizarrely the most positive of the obituary headlines following Reid’s death came in that most right wing of organs – the Daily Mail. ‘The man who saved 8,500 shipbuilders’ jobs’, it reported. Not a bad epitaph.