The coalition has gone where even Margaret Thatcher dared not tread (she memorably remarked that she was "not prepared to have the Queen's head privatised") and fired the starting gun on the sell-off of Royal Mail. It is doing so in the face of overwhelming hostility from the public (with 67% opposed and just 20% in favour) and postal workers (96% of whom oppose the privatisation), as well as opposition from Labour, the Countryside Alliance, the Bow Group, the National Federation of Subpostmasters and the business select committee.
The Communication Workers Union has said that it intends to ballot its members on strike action on 20 September, which could lead to a nationwide strike by 10 October. But the fear among trade unionists is that the coalition will attempt to push through the sell-off in advance of this date in order to avoid the spectacle of the government defying workers' wishes. A £3bn initial public offering is expected within weeks.
The government has promised the 150,000 postal workers a 10% stake in the company, with shares worth up to £2,000 each, and an 8.6% pay rise over three years. But CWU general secretary Bill Hayes has rightly warned that staff will not "sell their souls" for such a stake. "Postal workers know that privatisation would mean the break-up of the company, more job losses, worse terms and conditions, and attacks on their pensions. It would be a wrecking ball to the industry they work in."
Ministers hope that the sell-off will pave the way for a revival of the popular capitalism of the 1980s and plan to launch a Tell Sid-style advertising campaign to persuade the public to buy shares. Michael Fallon spoke on the Today programme this morning of how he hopes that "millions of people" will become owners of Royal Mail. But at a minimum stake of £750 (£500 for staff) that seems rather rather Panglossian.
As Chuka Umunna has previously outlined on The Staggers, Labour opposes the sell-off on the grounds that it is an ill-timed firesale designed to help plug the £116.5bn deficit. He wrote:
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.
But the question unions will ask of Labour is "would you reverse it?" The CWU has announced that it will table a denationalisation motion at the party's conference later ths month. It states: "Conference believes privatisation will jeopardise the contribution Royal Mail makes to the national economy through the universal service obligation. Conference agrees an incoming Labour government should re-nationalise Royal Mail in the event of the coalition government actually selling the company."
Should Ed Miliband, as on other occasions, merely state that "were Labour in government now" it would not be pursuing privatisation, without outlining what the party would do in 2015, it will be harder for his party to profit from the opposition to the move.