The privatisation of Royal Mail: a fire sale to dig Osborne out of a hole

Ministers are motivated by the desire to make a quick buck, not by what is best for the taxpayer in the long-term.

As a result of George Osborne’s failed economic experiment, the government is set to borrow £245bn more than it planned. So ministers are now desperately scrabbling around for ways to make a quick buck and dig themselves out of the hole they have created.

Amid reports that the government is considering selling off public stakes in the banks at a knockdown price, ministers have confirmed they are pressing ahead with a fire sale of Royal Mail this autumn. The timing of the sale is curious and seems entirely dictated by what is politically expedient for the Tory-led government in the short-term, not by what is best for the taxpayer in the long-term. In effect, David Cameron and George Osborne are playing politics with the postage stamp.

We opposed full privatisation when the government proposed it early in this parliament because we believe that maintaining the Royal Mail in public ownership gives the taxpayer an ongoing interest in the maintenance of universal postal services. It also gives us an interest in the all-important agreement the Royal Mail has with the Post Office, under which the Post Office provides Royal Mail products and services – crucial to the Post Office in the long term. Public ownership helps ensure the taxpayer shares in the upside of any modernisation and future profit that the Royal Mail delivers too.

Despite all this, the government is pressing ahead with its plans to sell off this 372-year-old institution. In so doing, it has failed to demonstrate why this is the best time to sell and why a sale this year will deliver best value for the taxpayer. Instead they are rushing headlong into privatisation without addressing fundamental outstanding issues for consumers and, in particular, the many small businesses that rely on Royal Mail services. 

Legitimate concerns have been raised regarding the competition posed to Royal Mail by other postal service operators: questions regarding the fairness of the competition and whether it delivers a good outcome for consumers, given other postal service operators are not subject by the regulator to the same high performance and service quality standards as the Royal Mail. 

These different service requirements arguably put the Royal Mail at a competitive disadvantage as compared to its competitors. This was laid bare in shocking detail in last week’s "Secrets of Your Missing Mail" Dispatches documentary on Channel 4, in which mail and parcels were filmed undercover being recklessly thrown around at a private postal operator’s depot. This state of affairs has not been addressed by the government and, as things stand, will surely compromise any price they can secure for Royal Mail for the taxpayer from potential investors.

Most people access a sorting office or Royal Mail office in reasonably close proximity to their home or business. But there is no guarantee that a privately=owned Royal Mail won’t sell off delivery offices - particularly those occupying urban sites where land values are higher - and replace them with distant, out-of-town locations, meaning individuals and small businesses would have to further go to pick up parcels and mail. What safeguards does the government intend to put in place to ensure easy access to Royal Mail locations following the sale? We do not know.

Then there is the future of the Post Office. Royal Mail customers currently rely on being able to access many Royal Mail services through the Post Office under a ten-year agreement between the two companies. This is convenient for many businesses and families. However, a privatised Royal Mail may well have very different management with different priorities. If ministers press ahead with the privatisation, there is no guarantee that Royal Mail under private ownership would continue providing services through the Post Office in the long term. 

We do not yet know of ministers' concrete plans for the Post Office.  What we do know is that they have made noises about fully mutualising it and are consulting on employee-owned models in that regard, among others. If they are considering turning the Post Office into a employee-owned mutual, why are they only giving Royal Mail employees a 10 per cent stake on the sale of shares in their employer? Again, no answers.

Finally, ministers have repeatedly argued that turning the Royal Mail into a wholly privately-owned business is essential to attract new investment. But they haven’t said how much capital they envisage the business being able to raise after privatisation. We are told the Royal Mail needs capital investment in the region of £2bn over the next five years. It is not at all clear - if the government rushes to sell now - that a privatised Royal Mail will be able to raise those sums. In part, this is because it depends on its future earnings.

Back in 2011, when ministers put through the Postal Services Act to pave the way for the privatisation of Royal Mail, the earnings of the business were poor. Two years on, the balance sheet of the business has improved significantly. Royal Mail’s historic pension deficit has been transferred to the government, agreement between trade unions and management has been reached, helping speed up modernisation, and the current CEO, Moya Greene, has proved highly effective. Consequently, operating profits increased from £39m to £120m last year. If the government is intent on privatisation, why not allow more time for the balance sheet to improve, so a higher price can be secured in the future instead of selling the Royal Mail on the cheap in the coming months?

Many questions, very few answers and so far little justification for doing a fire sale now. But there have been successful privatisations in times past which have delivered for the British people, ministers cry. Yes, there have also been examples, in rail and energy under the last Conservative government, where badly executed privatisations resulted in substandard services that were poorly co-ordinated, complex to navigate and have since resulted in people being ripped off. That is why any government intent on a sell off should proceed in a considered way, and exercise care, rather than dashing to sell for short-term political considerations.

This privatisation has the strong whiff of desperation from a government eager to dig itself out of a £245bn hole at any price. It is the taxpayer who will lose out.

George Osborne delivers a speech at media company Unruly, on April 25, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.