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Thursday, 15 August 2013 00:00

The drive for Mail 'efficiency'

by Michael Meacher

What the Tories really mean behind their words on our postal service

The only argument that the Tories have put forward to justify the privatisation of Royal Mail, apart from their ideological absolutism against any role for the state, is that it will increase efficiency by allowing it to operate freely within a private market.

But that argument is bogus. First, operating within a private market under the terms of neoliberal capitalism means shrinking the workforce, sweating the assets by worsening the terms and conditions of employment, maximising short-term profits within, perhaps, a five-year timescale and then selling on to the highest bidder. All of that is contrary to the national interest.

Second, private owners will expand the most lucrative parts of the service, particularly business post, and whittle down as far as they can the more costly elements, especially universal provision at a single price for the whole country, until they feel able to drop it altogether, no doubt on the argument that it's "necessary to save the rest of the service."

Third, they will then sell it off, perhaps to another state-owned postal service abroad such as Dutch or German Post, perhaps even to private equity operating out of a tax haven - as some of the British water companies already do - or maybe to a Chinese state corporation (already being sought to take over new nuclear build in Britain).

What does "efficiency" mean? Is it efficient to stuff the directors and senior managers with whopping bonuses, long-term incentive plans and multiple share options, while at the same time increasingly casualising the workforce with pay cuts, reduced rights, easier hire and fire and zero-hours contracts?

Does that inspire a committed and productive workforce, let alone a fair balance of reward?

Was it "efficient" to deregulate finance when in reckless pursuit of short-term profiteering it nearly crashed the whole banking system?

Efficiency in neoliberal markets is measured by shareholder returns and mammoth executive rewards. In a well-managed economy it is measured by rising and sustainable market share, service to the community, partnership in industrial relations and the wider national interest.

Efficiency isn't governed by the immediate sale price - and the proposed disposal for £3bn is a knock-down price for a unique national asset - but by the future audit of costs to the state if subsidies, tax breaks or bailouts are later found necessary.

There are many different models far more suited than privatisation that a creative government could embrace.

A Post Bank could be established as a not-for-profit organisation, with profits returned to the business and with access to both government and private funding.

It would be able to borrow on the open market, yet would have a clear public-service remit.

The board would have public interest directors together with directors elected by the workforce which should have vested in it a quarter or third of the shares in an employee ownership scheme.

It would then be driven by the long-term interests of its stakeholders - bond-holders, employees and customers - within a constitution and framework designed to serve the public good.

Equal opportunities Britain?

The finding that more than a million British workers - not 200,000 as earlier claimed - are employed on zero-hours contracts tells you half of what you need to know about market fundamentalism in Britain today.

The other half is that there are now 2,436 bankers in the City of London taking home more than €1 million a year - that is £15,723 a week - and their bonuses are now rising again.

The first group have no guarantee of work or pay, often get no holiday or sick pay, and to cap it all have to ask permission before trying to get additional work elsewhere - even though if they don't get additional pay they could be sanctioned by the DWP.

The second group nearly crashed the world economy, have not been held to account and now think they have a right to return to business as usual, as though nothing's happened. Welcome to Osborne's equal opportunities Britain.

But why stop at zero-hours contracts? They haven't.

The Tories have forced up to 1.6 million severely disabled people to sign up for work they cannot possibly get and through a farcical work capability assessment deemed people fit for work and therefore liable to be deprived of benefit.

Maybe if they win the election it'll be the introduction of child labour next.

Profits are now at an all-time high and wages are at their lowest ebb for 50 years, with a 9 per cent fall in real terms since the crash and the longest period of decline in average wages for a century, even exceeding the wage squeeze in the 1930s.

Yet there seems no end to the Tories' victimisation of the lowest paid, with Tory Party chairman Grant Shapps pledging to make it easier to hire and fire rather than, as at present, having to rely on "disingenuous reasons" to get rid of staff.

Will the Labour Party declare it's opposed to zero-hours contracts and pledge to end them?

Will it show it's opposed to blacklisting by making it an imprisonable offence, prosecuting the 44 companies who indulged in it if convicted, and making it sure that all the 3,213 building workers secretly subject to blacklisting are informed of the cause of their up to 20 years' joblessness and fully compensated?

Will it say loud and clear that a decade of pay cuts for those on the lowest incomes is flagrantly unjust when the 0.01 per cent richest have not only not paid any price but have seen their wealth continue to grow untouched?

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