How Labour could still save the Royal Mail from privatisation

A pledge by Miliband to renationalise the postal service could scare off potential private investors.

It was all quite a shock. On Friday, as the government announced that potential shareholders in the privatised Royal Mail were already lined up, campaigners were pre-occupied with the ballot for an anti-sell off postal workers strike. A strike that will now come after the post has been privatised, if the government has its way.

But there is one last chance to save the post from a privatisation the public do not want. Step forward, Ed Miliband.

In Brighton last week, Labour conference delegates voted unanimously to bring Royal Mail back into public ownership should Labour win the next election. Hurried press briefings that this would not bind the leadership were followed by shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna yesterday clarifying that such a pledge would be “irresponsible”.

Yet in the past week, the Labour leader has has proved that, occasionally at least, one can govern from opposition. And on this basis, maybe privatisation of the post is not as inevitable as it seems. Miliband’s conference pledge to freeze energy prizes was derided by Tories and pundits as unworkable. But it did much more than bring the issue to the headlines: it led the energy companies themselves to subsequently decide that Miliband, and not David Cameron, was shaping their future. The front page of the NPower website was updated within 24 hours to read: “Why wait for Ed?”, as the power giant offered its customers the chance to set their prices until 2017.

It’s something few opposition leaders have managed – but Ed is no stranger to setting the terms of debate. The scene was set by his early display against News International, when the Labour opposition forced the government to commit to the public, judge-led inquiry that became Leveson. There have since been numerous other areas in which Miliband could have used his acumen and judgment to make the Tories fight on his terms, but instead we have only seen a deafening silence. Labour’s economic arguments still centre around “getting the deficit down”, the line pioneered by Cameron, and vehemently opposed by Labour, before the 2010 election. But the policy pledges in last week’s conference speech were at least encouraging. Now, faced with a privatisation that 67 per cent of the public oppose, it is surely time for Miliband to act again.

The government’s brag that shareholders were waiting in the wings was intended to present the privatisation as a fait accompli. But we forget that no money has changed hands – and potential investors rarely take kindly to hearing their purchases will be snatched away.

Yet despite Miliband’s willingness to challenge the ‘vested interests’ of big business, public ownership remains a toxic phrase among Labour high command. The party’s official history implies that it only regained power in 1997 due to abandoning its policy of nationalisation. But not a single hand went up against the motion at Labour Party conference that called for renationalisation of the post. In the past, Labour leaders from Wilson to Blair ignored party conference decisions on the grounds they would not be popular with the wider public. But as politicians of all parties have drifted away from the realities of ordinary people’s lives, Labour conference now more often proposes policies that could well regain trust and support from voters.

One voice warning against a renationalisation pledge is postal expert David Stubbs. He told the Scotsman that Alex Salmond’s pledge to take the Scottish arm of the post into public ownership in the event of independence would have the “immediate effect… to depress the value even further.” Imagine the effect of a Labour pledge to take it back wholesale. What sort of investor would sign on the dotted line then?

Unfortunately, though Miliband has demonstrated himself well capable of taking on vested interests and winning, he has yet to recognise that sometimes his party's grassroots might just have it right. That he has only just pledged to scrap the bedroom tax – after months of dithering - suggests that the party’s policy process has failed to listen to party members and councillors who have been protesting since the penalty was first mooted.

Time is running out to save Britain from the devastating service that comes with privatised post, with the transfer of stock expected by 15 October. Pledging to re-nationalise would be a risk, but Miliband has taken those before: and if potential investors run scared like the energy companies, it wouldn’t cost a penny.

A worker walks past a row of vans at the Mount Pleasant sorting office on September 12, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

 Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser