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.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit