Sunday, July 5, 2009

Royal Mail: enough’s enough.

This week it was announced that the Royal Mail privatisation was to be delayed until after the next election. All very well, but the last 30 years of brutal corporate hegemony seem to have left our economic, social and political intellectual landscape so ravaged that in spite of the grotesque plutocratic machinations of the recent “credit crunch”, “bail-outs” and “recession” (read: fiscal coup), the issues are frequently presented as party-political, policy-neutral electioneering, and apparently no-one even wants to consider the fundamental ideological issue here, which is (in my view unfortunately) a deeply unfashionable one: that public service exists to serve the public.

So, let’s try to get this straight. I’m going to get simplistic about this, because frankly that’s what we seem to need to do in order to get the point across. According to the privatisers’ mantra spun by the Prince of Darkness and his various little wizards, the Royal Mail was to be privatised because “it wasn’t working as a business”. Since when was it a “business”? It’s a public service. It exists to serve the public, not owners or shareholders. It’s OK to run it at a loss if need be. That’s why we pay tax, so that public service can serve the public. How complicated does this have to be?

“Ah, but it’s inefficient.” So? Fix it. “The only way to fix its inefficiency is to introduce competition, because profit is what motivates people to succeed.” Well, even if we take that logical leap of faith as gospel, fine: introduce a profit motive to incentivise individuals within an organisation, give them targets and objectives, get them to feel that there’s a personal point for them in striving to make the organisation work more effectively - but don’t introduce profit as a motivation for running a public service. It’s trivially obvious that it will lead to a reduction in services that don’t generate profits, which is not what a public service is about.

Transport, hospitals, post. If people insist on having private versions because they want to spend their hard-earned cash on extra bells and whistles, that’s fine - but there’s no reason to take it as a rationale for flogging the lot and ultimately removing the base level of service that a publicly-elected and -funded government has a responsibility to provide. If you’re going to outsource the whole machinery of state and reduce taxes to a bare minimum, then setting aside the politics and ideology, you’d at least have a consistent argument for emasculating the public sector to the benefit of private capital. If, however, you’re going to pose as a left-of-centre party and maintain any levels of taxation, then rationalising the sale of public services to that private capital is nothing more than a ruse, a larceny of the sort we stared goggle-eyed at in post-Soviet Russia’s collapse into lawless oligarchy.

New “Labour”. How dare you use the name.