The postal workers’ struggle is as vital for democracy as any national event in recent years. The campaign against them is part of a historic shift from the last vestiges of political democracy in Britain to a corporate world of insecurity and war. If the privateers running the Post Office are allowed to win, the regression that now touches all lives bar the wealthy will quicken its pace. A third of British children now live in low-income or impoverished families. One in five young people is denied hope of a decent job or education.
And now the Brown government is to mount a “fire sale” of public assets and services worth £16bn. Unmatched since Margaret Thatcher’s transfer of public wealth to a new gross elite, the sale, or theft, will include the Channel Tunnel rail link, bridges, the student loan bank, school playing fields, libraries and public housing estates. The plunder of the National Health Service and public education is already under way.
The common thread is adherence to the demands of an opulent, sub-criminal minority exposed by the 2008 collapse of Wall Street and of the City of London, now rescued with hundreds of billions in public money and still unregulated with a single stringent condition imposed by the government. Goldman Sachs, which enjoys a personal connection with the Prime Minister, is to give employees record average individual pay and bonus packages of £500,000. The Financial Times now offers a service called How to Spend It.
None of this is accountable to the public, whose view was expressed at the last election in 2005: New Labour won with the support of barely a fifth of the British adult population. For every five people who voted Labour, eight did not vote at all. This was not apathy, as the media pretend, but a strike by the public – like the postal workers are today on strike. The issues are broadly the same: the bullying and hypocrisy of contagious, undemocratic power.
Since coming to office, New Labour has done its best to destroy the Post Office as a highly productive public institution valued with affection by the British people. Not long ago, you posted a letter anywhere in the country and it reached its destination the following morning. There were two deliveries a day, and collections on Sundays. The best of Britain, which is ordinary life premised on a sense of community, could be found at a local post office, from the Highlands to the Pennines to the inner cities, where pensions, income support, child benefit and incapacity benefit were drawn, and the elderly, the awkward, the inarticulate and the harried were treated humanely.
At my local post office in south London, if an elderly person failed to turn up on pension day, he or she would get a visit from the postmistress, Smita Patel, often with groceries. She did this for almost 20 years until the government closed down this “lifeline of human contact”, as the local Labour MP called it, along with more than 150 other local London branches. The Post Office executives who faced the anger of our community at a local church – unknown to us, the decision had already been taken – were not even aware that the Patels made a profit. What mattered was ideology; the branch had to go. Mention of public service brought puzzlement to their faces.
The postal workers, having this year doubled annual profits to £321m, have had to listen to specious lectures from Peter Mandelson, a twice-disgraced figure risen from the murk of New Labour, about “urgent modernisation”. The truth is, the Royal Mail offers a quality service at half the price of its privatised rivals Deutsche Post and TNT. In dealing with new technology, postal workers have sought only consultation about their working lives and the right not to be abused – like the postal worker who was spat upon by her manager, then sacked while he was promoted; and the postman with 17 years’ service and not a single complaint to his name who was sacked on the spot for failing to wear his cycle helmet. Watch the near frenzy with which your postie now delivers. A middle-aged man has to run much of his route in order to keep to a preordained and unrealistic time. If he fails, he is disciplined and kept in his place by the fear that thousands of jobs are at the whim of managers.
Communication Workers Union negotiators describe intransigent executives with a hidden agenda – just as the National Coal Board masked Thatcher’s strictly political goal of destroying the miners’ union. The collaborative journalists’ role is unchanged, too. Mark Lawson, who pontificates about middlebrow cultural matters for the BBC and the Guardian and receives many times the remuneration of a postal worker, dispensed a Sun-style diatribe on 10 October. Waffling about the triumph of email and how the postal service was a “bystander” to the internet when, in fact, it has proven itself a commercial beneficiary, Lawson wrote: “The outcome [of the strike] will decide whether Billy Hayes of the CWU will, like [Arthur] Scargill, be remembered as someone who presided over the destruction of the industry he was meant to represent.”
The record is clear that Scargill and the miners were fighting against the wholesale destruction of an industry that was long planned for ideological reasons. The miners’ enemies included the most subversive, brutal and sinister forces of the British state, aided by journalists – as Lawson’s Guardian colleague Seumas Milne documents in his landmark work, The Enemy Within. Postal workers deserve the support of all honest, decent people, who are reminded that they may be next on the list if they remain silent.