The Royal Mail sell-off is just a hand-out to the rich

[Cross-posted from York Vision]

Not even Thatcher was prepared to have ‘the Queen’s head privatised’. Yet within a few weeks, the coalition will go where she feared to tread as Royal Mail becomes another national asset to join the ranks of Britain’s long list of sold-off public utilities. And even more so than with water, rail and energy, the sell-off represents one thing: a hand-out from one group of rich people (the cabinet) to another – multinational companies and financiers.

You’d be reasonable to ask why I’m annoyed at this as a student, who like most others in my demographic is generally averse to reeling off letters when a few pointed tweets will probably do it. And it’s not because I order stuff online, although I do (and can guarantee that delivery prices will rise after privatisation). It’s not even because I’m a frothing-at-the-mouth socialist with an obsession for public ownership (although that’s probably also true). It’s the sheer pointlessness of the sell-off.

For one, the Royal Mail isn’t a member of the club of vilified ‘burdens on the tax-payer’ as the right-wing press would have it. It’s actually a huge profit maker (unlike the Post Office), raking in £440 million last year for the service – and potentially the Treasury. So, much like the also soon-to-be-privatised East Coast Rail network, which has given £640m to the public-purse since being taken over, the public would be potentially making a huge financial loss. That £440m with which to ‘modernise’, the ostensible logic behind the sell-off, will now be doled out to investors for a few billion quid.

But ‘modernise’, as we learnt from both the Thatcher and the Blair years, doesn’t actually mean to ‘update’ or ‘improve’ – it now means to hand over to shareholders to be milked for all its worth. Therefore by definition – under conservative logic – the Royal Mail must be thrown into the turbulent winds of the market free-for-all.

Yet – and here is when political language breaks down – what does ‘conservatism’ mean if not to conserve? Thatcher could at least claim some validity to her conservatism after refusing to sell of the Mail, the NHS and rail – though she arguably would have if she could. But in this privatisation spree we learn what modern conservatism really means – 19thC laissez-faire. What we have is not the conservatism of the post-war years but the politics of the workhouse and a hyperactive neoliberalism.

The sell-off of Royal Mail, condemned by even the right-wing Bow Group, is the peak the free-market experiment. If we can sell-off a 500 year old national treasure in a few weeks, what can’t be disposed of? Nothing is sacred. All that is solid turns to air. And Tancredi’s maxim holds true – ‘For things to remain the same, everything must change’.  

We can’t even wait for Labour to renationalise it (or better, fully mutualise it). They have basically pledged not to already. And with Labour trying twice to flog off the Post Office during its last time in office, it couldn’t be trusted to either way. Instead, it’s left to the Greens to properly oppose the move after unanimously passing an emergency motion at the party’s Autumn Conference last weekend.

For an ideologically-driven government, it doesn’t matter that the Royal Mail is profitable – in fact, it’s a boost for their wealthy friends who will soon own it. It doesn’t matter that 70% of the public oppose the sell-off, or that in contravention to supposed Tory love of heritage the Queen’s head will soon be the possession of bankers from Papa New Guinea to Peru. It doesn’t matter that prices will rise (have you been on a train lately?), that Tory-voting rural areas will be cut off or that the six-day delivery will be threatened.

Because, as with the austerity agenda as a whole, this is about one thing – the redistribution of wealth from us who currently own the Royal Mail (i.e. you and me) to the 1% – a point made clearer by the fact that the sweeten-up the sale, the government has had to nationalise Royal Mail’s pension fund – a classic case of ‘nationalise the debt, privatise the profit’, as the Communication Workers’ Union’s Billy Hayes put it. This is socialism for the rich.

And with shares starting at £750, this is no mass ‘Tell Sid’-style public offering. It represents, to paraphrase Marx, the state acting in the interests of the ruling class. And if you want to do something about it, join the campaign to Save Our Royal Mail. Only grass-roots action can stop this now.

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