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.

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Jeremy Corbyn is not standing down - 172 people cannot drown out democracy

The Labour Party could right now be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest, writes shadow chancellor John McDonnell. 

The shadow chancellor writes exclusively for The New Statesman amid one of the most turbulent weeks in politics this century.

The “coup” taking place in the Labour Party

The instability from Brexit has extended into the Parliamentary Labour Party with members of the shadow cabinet standing down. I would like to thank all of those who have participated with me for their work.

Frustratingly, this has come at the worst possible time for our country. And at a time in which we our party could have used to reset the economic narrative that the Tories planted in the public during the summer of 2010 when our party was in the midst of a leadership contest.

Our party right now could be exploiting a bitter Conservative leadership contest that’ll probably lead to electing a Tory leader who will be responsible for any economic fallout from Brexit. The Tories have peddled lies over the past six years over the management of our economy and the state of the public finance, which the decision last Thursday is sadly exposing.

I strongly believe that if some colleagues are not careful then they may cause irreparable damage to our party and the country. 

The Labour Party changed last September. Jeremy was elected with the largest mandate of any political leader in the history of our country. Our party’s values of democracy and solidarity seem to be asked of the membership and always met. Sadly not by some members of the PLP. 

There are those in our party who could not come to terms with the fact that a quarter of a million members could clearly see that the our party’s broken election model has lead to two back to back defeats and needed replacing. Like the wisdom of crowds, our membership understands that we cant keep going on doing the same thing electorally and getting the same results.

I believe that we can all still work together, but I feel some MPs need to get off their chest what they have been holding back since last Autumn. Maybe then they will hear the message that our membership sent them.

The truth is that Jeremy is not standing down. In the Labour Party our members are sovereign. There was an election held and a decision made, and 172 people cannot outweigh a quarter of a million others. 

It would risk sending the worst possible message we could send as a party to the electorate - that Labour does not respect the democratic process.

The economics of Brexit

The Leave vote delivered an immense shock to the political system creating great instability. Of immediate concern is the deteriorating economic situation. Credible economic forecasters virtually unanimously warned that leaving the European Union would be an enormous shock to the economy. 

The disagreements centred on the severity of the shock, and the long-term damage done. To that initial shock must be added the realisation that there was no plan made for a post-Brexit Britain. 

George Osborne has not secured the foundations of our economy and the market volatility reflects that missed opportunity. With turmoil continuing, and major employers already threatening redundancies, the immediate task is to stabilise markets and reassure investors and savers that financial institutions remain rock solid. 

The measures announced by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney early on Friday morning, and the later statement from the Chancellor, are to be welcomed and we have requested a briefing under Privy Council rules on the financial authorities’ contingency plans. It is also reassuring that George Osborne has now moved a threatened, post-Brexit austerity Budget until at least the Autumn. 

Nonetheless, with a recession now forecast, any attempt to push further austerity measures in response to the crisis would be an act of exceptional economic folly. The Chancellor’s own fiscal targets have long since been missed and simply redoubling the misery of spending cuts and tax rises will not bring them any closer to achievement. 

What is needed in a crisis like this is urgent government action to shore up investment, already falling before the vote. Shovel-ready projects should be brought forward, creating jobs and focused on beginning to rebuild those parts of the country currently most deprived – and where the vote to Leave was strongest. As a country we will get through this crisis, and we will do so when we no longer tolerate a situation in which too many of our people are excluded from even the chance of prosperity.

The referendum result

I have been in consultation with many economist, trade union and business leaders since the early hours of the morning when we learnt the result. I hope to give a speech this Friday going into further details of Labour’s economic response, but the result last Thursday came as a blow to many of us in the Labour Party.

All wings of the Labour movement fought hard, and two-thirds of our voters swung to Remain – the same as the SNP, and far more than the Tories, who split 60:40 for Leave. 

Labour will now be fighting to ensure whatever negotiations now take place, and whatever proposals the government chooses to bring forward, will maintain hard-won protections for working people in this country.

The new Labour leadership inherited the Labour In campaign last year. Obviously as with any campaign we will now have to reassess, but the hard work of the staff who worked on the campaign cannot be questioned. They did a fantastic job. 

Jeremy Corbyn also managed to help get out a larger number of our voters than the other main Westminster leaders across the country. 

But the sad truth is that we lost regardless. We need to learn lessons of the referendum and the General Election campaigns, and question whether the way we campaign as a party needs to be changed. 

It is clear that we cannot fight the next election using the same outdated practises and policies that were in place at the last two general elections, and the recent referendum. 

We cannot continue to do the same things in the same ways and get the same results. Those people who need a Labour government the most cannot afford it.


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015.