Labour, the CWU and Royal Mail privatisation

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CWU members with campaign banner outside the Policy Forum
CWU members with campaign banner outside the Policy Forum

LAST Friday the leadership of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) issued a press release welcoming the news that the day before the Labour Party shadow cabinet had finally agreed to oppose the plans by the Tory led coalition to privatise Royal Mail.

The Labour Party front bench have been noticeably reticent in the past to come out in outright opposition to privatisation of the postal service, despite the fact that various shadow secretaries of state for business, whose remit covers the service, have ritually voiced their verbal opposition to privatisation.

When the government announced the decision to proceed with Post Office flotation back in July the Labour spokesman restricted his criticism to the fact that Vince Cable, the government minister for business , was flogging the service off too cheaply.

Despite the fact that Royal Mail is valued at around £4.5 billion, Cable is prepared to take a huge loss and sell it off for £3 billion so desperate is the government to push through the last great privatisation of a public service – a privatisation that even Margaret Thatcher in her hey-day was unable to pull off.

The Labour leadership in July were left not roundly condemning privatisation and pledging to fight it all the way but to haggling about the price, insisting that if privatisation was delayed the government could make even more money out of it.

On Thursday, however, the shadow cabinet came out with a statement that the Party was now launching its own campaign against privatisation.

This news was greeted enthusiastically by the CWU leadership in the press statement which reads:

‘The Labour Party has added to the growing opposition to the Government’s plans to privatise the Royal Mail by launching their own campaign to “Save the Daily Delivery”.

‘Their campaign, launched yesterday (Thursday), follows the lead of the CWU’s long-running Save Our Royal Mail campaign and takes heed of CWU postal members voting 97 per cent against privatisation in a consultative ballot run in June.

The results of the ballot led to the threat of a national strike ballot unless progress is made on pay, pensions, jobs and other issues related to the sell-off which remains a possibility. More recently, Royal Mail managers took a stance against privatisation in a ballot run by their union, Unite.

‘The Labour Party’s campaign calls the sell-off plans “dangerous” and criticises the Coalition Government’s argument for selling what has become a profitable business, turning profits of over £400m in the last financial year.

A Labour source explained: “Like so many of this Government’s plans, these haven’t been thought through properly. They want to sell off Royal Mail on the cheap in order to plug a financial hole in the British economy caused by George Osborne’s failed policies as Chancellor.”

‘Welcoming the campaign, CWU general secretary Billy Hayes said: “The Royal Mail is an integral part of Great British society – from the universal delivery service to the friendly “postie”.

It beggars belief that the Coalition government would even entertain the thought of selling it off and goes to show just how desperate this government is to make a fast buck to cover their failings at the expense of the taxpayer who has already had to bail out the banks.

‘ “A publicly owned Royal Mail is an asset to this country, not only in terms of the rich history that is represents but also in terms of the viable business that it has turned into and it should remain in public ownership for the benefit of the people of this country as a result,” said Hayes.

‘Labour MPs are also warning of the negative consequences a private Royal Mail will have on local communities. The extent of what a private, profit-driven, owner could do to the service remains unclear and the Government have been called out on their inability to clarify what it will mean to those who rely on the daily service.

‘In rural areas the local post office acts as a focal point for communities and there are many pensioners across the country who are reassured by seeing their regular postie every morning. There are also the small businesses that use the Royal Mail for ensuring customers get their goods and services on time, efficiently, reliably and at a reasonable price.

‘ “Which is why the Tory-led Government’s plans for privatising Royal Mail are so dangerous,” said the Labour source.

‘Labour MPs have been encouraged to promote the campaign to their constituents by asking them to sign the petition to “Save the Daily Delivery”. Contact your local MP to find out how you can get involved and support the campaign.

‘And don’t forget to promote the Save Our Royal Mail campaign and petition which continues to draw support and will be handed over to No. 10 early in September. Sign it now if you haven’t already.’

Whilst it would be churlish not to welcome the Labour shadow cabinet launching a campaign to save Royal Mail from privatisation it would be foolish and dangerous for any postal worker to be fooled into thinking that this last minute decision to launch an on-line petition is in any way a serious campaign intended to stop privatisation.

To start with, the campaign is far too late in the day to be anything more than a sop to postal workers – the government intends to float the service on the stock exchange within weeks and achieve full privatisation by the end of the autumn.

On top of this both Labour MPs and the CWU leaders know full well petitions have no effect on this government.

They are hell-bent on selling off Royal Mail, and every other public service, in order to raise money to pay back the massive debts that the banking system has run up.

No amount of signatures either written or electronically produced will halt them in their tracks.

The most noticeable thing about the Labour shadow cabinet’s decision, however, is what it leaves out.

It completely ignores the question of what happens should privatisation go ahead.

It contains absolutely no commitment that a future Labour government would re-nationalise the service.

Frankly, even if they had of given such a commitment it would not be believable.

The last Labour government was elected on a manifesto that pledged to re-nationalise the railways, a pledge that they immediately reneged upon when in office.

It was the last Labour administration that tried to achieve what Thatcher had failed to do when they attempted to drive through privatisation of Royal Mail, a move that was only stopped because of the huge opposition from CWU members and the public.

This decision by the Labour front bench has all the hallmarks of a stunt aimed at trying to convince the working class and CWU members in particular, that the Miliband leadership is really challenging the right-wing policies of the coalition and cover up for the fact that they are in complete agreement on privatisation, wage cutting and forcing workers to shoulder the burden of the capitalist crisis.

Billy Hayes’ enthusiasm in greeting this stunt, is down to the fact that under his leadership the CWU has done everything to restrict the fight to precisely the same useless round of petitions and begging the government to ‘see sense’.

Despite Hayes making numerous speeches promising industrial action by the union he has been careful to limit his calls for strike action to be restricted to changes to terms and conditions that would take place after privatisation.

On the one occasion when he forgot himself and stated: ‘We aren’t going to let Royal Mail be sold. We are going to fight every step of the way. A strike is certain.’ This was quickly retracted by a CWU official who explained that Hayes had been talking in general terms and that he had not specified what the strike action would be over, adding that a strike against the privatisation of Royal Mail would be illegal, open the union up to having its funds sequestered and that this would therefore not happen.

The danger in the Labour Party leadership launching its campaign against privatisation, is that it will be seized on by Hayes as the flimsy cover to say that the only way to stop privatisation is to vote Labour, knowing that even if Labour is elected it will not renationalise the industry.

During an exchange between Vince Cable and Alan Johnson, the right-wing Labour MP and former general secretary of the CWU, on the BBC programme the Daily Politics Show back in April, Cable spelt out the position quite succinctly when he told Johnson bluntly, ‘You are not going to renationalise it, you know that, the union knows that, we know that. We’re at the end of that particular story!’

That may be the end of the story as far as Cable, the coalition and Hayes are concerned but it is not the end for CWU members.

They are suffering daily under a brutal management regime that is resorting to bullying and threats to drive up productivity to intolerable levels in preparation for privatisation and are more than ready to take on this government as the 97% vote shows.

CWU members must demand an emergency meeting of the CWU to instruct Hayes to call national strike action to stop privatisation of Royal Mail, and to demand that the TUC call a general strike to halt the destruction of all public services by bringing down the government and replacing it with a workers government.

This is the only policy that can win the fight in the real world of the capitalist crisis, where Tory and Labour policies are practically identical.

A policy of depending on a Labour victory and then that this Labour government will renationalise Royal Mail would be a stinking betrayal of all postal workers and the working class as a whole.