This public service should not be run down into fodder for a private sale without a proper public debate
In Margaret Thatcher’s time, the early arguments over the privatisation of key public services were so heated, so polarised, that even the most disengaged voter would have had an idea about what was at stake. The opposite is true today with the tragic carve-up of our postal services.
Consider: the British postal service was once the envy of the world. “There is, perhaps, none so pre-eminently a people’s institution as is the Post Office,” wrote JW Hyde in 1885, in a book about the “Curiosities and Romance” of the Royal Mail. Even Mrs Thatcher demurred from giving it her privatisation treatment, arguing in 1987 that “people feel very strongly about it and so do I”. Since then, however, this well-loved institution has been kicked about, rebranded (Consignia, anyone?) and undermined time and again. The old GPO died long ago: the Royal Mail and post offices formally split in March into two separate entities, with all the usual idiocies that involves, including staff renting desk space from each other.
There would be no reason for customers to know or care about all this, were it not for the fact that – as Duncan Campbell-Smith, historian of the Royal Mail, puts it – one of Britain’s best-loved institutions is now suffering “death by a thousand plans”. For the post office that means the snatching away of key parts of its business (such as the selling of TV licences), or the swapping of traditional counter service for a drastically reduced till offering to be run by the likes of Tesco (even as successive ministers talk of how the post office should be a “front office for government” services). Meanwhile, foreign multinationals are trying to get into the mail-delivery business, raising the very real prospect that all the lucrative and urban corporate contracts could be picked off by the private sector, while the expensive and unprofitable deliveries to far-flung parts will remain in public hands.
The remarkable thing about this wilful destructiveness is how little public debate it has engendered. The three main parties in Westminster have long agreed that breaking up the postal services is the only sensible policy. As the Communications Workers Union is set to argue at an industry conference this Friday, successive governments have treated competition as more important than universal service. Yet as the Future of the Post Office pamphlet – published yesterday, and supported by the CWU among others – points out, this public service should not be run down into fodder for a private sale, but could be built up into a public asset to be proud of. This is about more than calculations of value: forcibly marketising an institution changes both the service and the relations that citizens have with it. At the very least, this process should not go on without a proper public debate.