The privatisation of Royal Mail will leave Britain and its 150,000 posties at the mercy of a profiteering monopoly. We need to stop it happening
Royal Mail is being sold off - at least if the government gets its way. Last week, business secretary Vince Cable announced plans to float the state-owned company on the stock market.
It is perhaps no surprise that this move has provoked disquiet, not just upon the left and amongst the unions, but across the entirety of the political spectrum. After all Royal Mail hardly conforms to right-wing stereotypes of flabby nationalised industries. Last year it turned a profit of £400 million.
The official justification for selling off the postal service is that the rise of the internet has effectively turned it into a parcel delivery business. It needs to invest £2 billion to make the necessary adjustments, and to do this it needs to sell shares on the stock market. As the Communication Workers Union (CWU) have pointed out, a business as profitable as Royal Mail could easily borrow the money it needs to invest, without giving over control of a crucial social utility to those driven only by profit.
Even from a free-marketeer perspective the idea of privatising Royal Mail seems to make little sense. The postal service is after all, a natural monopoly - a service that can only really be operated efficiently if it is provided by a single organisation (imagine two posties going up the same road to deliver letters sent via different companies). As such privatisation will not bring about any of the alleged benefits of competition. What it will do however, is leave the people of Britain at the mercy of a monopolist bent on maximising profits, every time they wish to get something from A to B.
Ever since 2010, Vince Cable has worked hard (and indeed disingenuously) to sustain his reputation as the progressive cuckoo in the austerity crazed-nest. As such he has made a great deal of the fact that 10% of the shares in Royal Mail will be given over to workers. This propagandistic gesture needs to be seen for what it is. The vast majority of the company - and the ability to control it - will still rest with the banks and hedge funds who buy up most of the remaining 90%. The shares given to each postal worker, meanwhile, will be worth £2,000 - a pittance compared to what they stand to lose once the organisation's new, profit-driven owners begin to initiate mass redundancies, and to attack the pay and conditions of those who remain.
What is really driving privatisation?
This, in turn, offers some insight into what is really driving privatisation. Though the coalition's economic record has been spectacularly unsuccessful, the oft-repeated claim that the coalition has "no plan" for recovery is not quite accurate. Actually, as Cameron’s rhetoric about delivering an "export lead" recovery makes clear, the government hopes to ensure recovery by making Britain the sweatshop of Europe, driving down wages, abolishing protections, and reducing the cost of doing business in order that the country can flog more of its potential output in a global marketplace increasingly shaped by newly industrialised low wage economies.
Britain's Posties hardly enjoy a gold plated lifestyle. But over the preceding decades they have managed to resist casualisation and to make some improvements to conditions and pay through collective bargaining. Flogging off the Royal Mail will mark the start of an attack on the living standards of Britain's 150,000 postal workers, as part of a wider strategy to minimise the cost of doing business in Britain, and to do so on the backs of the working class. Meanwhile the flotation of Royal Mail will open up a new outlet for profitable investment - something of a rarity in a period marked by historically low investment, in which private enterprise has conspicuously failed to "pick up the slack" left by the decimation of the public sector.
A fight we can and must win
The plan to sell off Royal Mail is extremely unpopular, with both Royal Mail employees and with the general public. The CWU has threatened strikes unless the government steps back from privatisation. This is important: under New Labour, industrial action was crucial in scaring off potential buyers and scuppering plans to sell off the postal service. Whether the union is ready to mount a fightback on a scale that is necessary remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, 67 per cent of the British people oppose privatisation compared with just 20 per cent who support it. Of course public opinion, in itself, is hardly sufficient to stop a Tory-led government bent on a plan to raise profits for its class-backers. Yet this does demonstrate the potential for a mass campaign big enough to both make life difficult for the government, and to embolden the unions to really fight hard enough to keep the post office public. If we want a decent future for working people in this country - and if we want to be able to access public utilities without paying monopoly prices - then this is a struggle that we can and must win.
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.
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