Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review
Trouble is brewing in the Post Office, says The Walrus, as New Labour presses ahead with privatisation
Those who like to reassure themselves that the return of a New Labour government will at least spare us from more flint eyed, Tory-style fanaticism should take a look at the government's latest plans for the Post Office. As with most privatisation proposals, Labour's new plans to open up competition in postal services have absolutely nothing to do with public need and everything to do with the asset-stripping mentality of city consultants and other corporate ransackers.
Off and on, workers in the Post Office have lived with the constant threat of privatisation for the best part of the last 20 years. It was first held over the workforce in a big way at the time of the printers' strike at Wapping, when News International boss Rupert Murdoch brought in the Australian haulage firm TNT to carry out the bulk of his newspaper distribution. At the time it was widely predicted that firms like TNT, DHL, UPS and FedEx would be carving up the entire postal network in no time. The subtext being, of course, that Post Office workers must accept wholesale job losses and swingeing cuts to terms and conditions in order to match the competition.
As it happened, things never turned out quite as planned. In the run-up to the 1992 general election John Major and Michael Heseltine were sharp enough to realise that privatisation of the Post Office would prove massively unpopular with the electorate. But they also knew that this would be massively popular with the Thatcherite rump of their own party. The solution was to promise a carve-up to the Tory faithful but deny any such intention to the press or general public.
Lot of good it did them, because after much procrastination, their plans were finally scuppered in 1994 after a storm of public uproar had developed involving a bizarre coalition of backbench Tory MPs, rural postmasters and mistresses, and leaders of the CWU, the main Post Office union. It was described at the time by one commentator in the Times as 'probably the biggest ever government climbdown over privatisation--and indeed one of the Conservatives' biggest climbdowns of any kind'.
His finger ever on the popular pulse, Tony Blair's response to this proper stuffing was not to join in the widespread public glee. Instead he accused the Tories of cowardice, and suggested that if they didn't have the nerve to privatise they might at least try to 'liberate it within the private sector'. By this stage, mind, not only had the Tories' privatisation plans collapsed, but the worldwide operations of the private operator, TNT, had been taken over by the (partly-privatised) Dutch post and telecoms operator, KPN.
In effect, the buyout of TNT by KPN represented a compromise which highlighted the conflicts that had arisen when the worldwide networks of aircraft, delivery vans and couriers owned by UPS, DHL and the rest tried to move in on the territory of the predominantly state-owned domestic operators in Europe. The steady profits which the American global express businesses had been able to make at home were much harder to achieve overseas, so why not settle for reliance on the stable profits of a domestic postal service?
Despite all the threats to traditional mail apparently posed by the advent of technological breakthroughs (like fax machines and e-mail), and those posed by more intense global competition, more letters are posted now than ever before and 98 percent of those deliveries are handled by the national postal service.
In the past few years the KPN/TNT model has heavily influenced top level discussions on the 'liberalisation' of postal services in Europe, and a number of EU directives have been issued calling for 'the promotion of effective competition between postal operators'. During the same period plans for Post Office privatisation have surreptitiously been resurrected, not least due to the thankless efforts of Peter Mandelson during his time at the Department of Trade and Industry, and by Alan Johnson MP, former general secretary of the CWU and now New Labour's minister for competition.
Since Labour got in, in fact, the entire leadership of the CWU seems to have fallen into a Miss Piggy like trance over Blair's newly revived plans to liberate the network, including erstwhile militants like John Keggie who led a major rank and file revolt in 1996. All of them had started to mutter exactly the same kind of platitudes about the inevitability of globalisation.
The fruits of the backroom manoeuvrings in Brussels and at Millbank have been known to most postal workers for some time, but only became public knowledge a few weeks ago when the papers started to talk of the biggest shake-up of the Post Office in 350 years. From the end of March a new regulatory body called PostComm will take on the job of ensuring that 'unnecessary barriers to competition' are dismantled within the industry and licensed private operators will be granted the right to issue their own stamps and install their own post boxes.
Having jumped on the government bandwagon, leaders of the CWU must have assumed that the government would play the game and go easy with changes to the industry. Instead they have only gone and appointed a man to head up PostComm who has already been attacked by the CWU for adopting a 'hawkish' approach to privatisation. Already dubbed the 'rogue regulator', new man Graham Corbett was awarded a CBE for services to transport in 1994 after several years of sterling work on the board at Eurotunnel (saved from catastrophe by an injection of £8 billion from taxpayers' money).
Looking a bit like the Chris Woodhead of the postal services, Corbett has managed to infuriate union leaders by querying the commitment to a 'universal service obligation' which is clearly enshrined in both EU and British domestic legislation. General Secretary of the CWU Derek Hodgson has even written to Stephen Byers complaining that 'he is not a politician--but he seems to want the powers of a dictator'. With a bit of luck, Corbett might do as good a job as his namesake at Railtrack and be out on his arse in double quick time. But, if and when Labour do get back in again, rank and file members in the post office might well need to be giving their own leadership an early morning wake up call.
Their plans were finally scuppered in 1994 after a storm of protest