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Don't let Labour off the hook

The Royal Mail sell-off was not only a criminally bad deal, it should never have been sold in the first place, writes NEIL CLARK

It's Grand National day. In 1937, the world's most famous steeplechase was won by a horse called Royal Mail.

Just as well Vince Cable and George Osborne weren't around then as they'd have flogged the poor animal off for a fraction of its value - and left the old owners paying for its upkeep, with the new owners able to pocket the profits of future wins.

For, of course, this is what they've done to our Royal Mail. Quite rightly, the price the Royal Mail was sold for has come under attack, with the National Audit Office reporting this week that the government's actions cost British taxpayers £750 million in a single day, but while the fact that this national institution was sold for at least £1.6 billion below its real value is scandalous - and some would say criminal - it would be a mistake to base our critique of the sale solely on the basis that "they sold it off on the cheap."

For the fact is that even if the Royal Mail had been sold at its proper value, it would still have been the wrong thing to do.

The Royal Mail was a profitable publicly owned enterprise which had delivered an excellent service to the public for centuries.

There was widespread public satisfaction with the service despite the rise in stamp prices which were introduced in the lead-up to the privatisation to fatten the business up for City investors.

A privatised Royal Mail will mean that the universal delivery obligation will, sooner or later, be threatened.

Already since the sell-off we've seen another increase in stamp prices, with first and second-class stamps going up to 62p and 53p respectively and the announcement of 1,300 job losses.

This is only the sign of things to come. So long as the Royal Mail remains privatised we can expect more big increases in stamp prices and a further reduction in the labour force as well as cuts in services.

This is after all what invariably happens to publicly owned enterprises after they are privatised.

While of course the main responsibility for the sell-off lies with Cable and the government, we shouldn't let Labour off the hook.

Labour, remember, tried to push the idea of selling a minority stake in the Royal Mail in 2009, a policy enthusiastically supported by Blairites in the party.

The Conservatives called Labour's move "a step in right direction."

And in 2013 Labour could have wrecked the sale of the Royal Mail by making a clear commitment to renationalise.

That would have deterred would-be investors, but instead shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna wrote: "I have been very clear that we are not in a position to pledge to renationalise Royal Mail if we get into government in 2015." Why did Labour take this defeatist position?

As public ownership campaigners, our ire should be directed not only against serial privatisers but also against those politicians who criticise aspects of privatisation, but who fail to commit to reverse the sales of publicly owned property when they return to office.

The coalition knew that the sell-off of the Royal Mail would be unpopular but it was encouraged to go ahead because it believed that Labour wouldn't do the one thing that could have sabotaged the sale - namely, make a public commitment to renationalise.

The uber-Thatcherite Conservative and Orange Book Lib Dems currently governing us may be serial privatisers, but by their failure to openly commit to renationalise, the Labour front bench are privatisation enablers.

In the next 12 months we're going to bombarded with propaganda from Establishment-approved "licensed radicals" in the mainstream media urging us to vote Labour to get rid of the coalition.

But Labour's timid stance on the Royal Mail is hardly a sign that things will be radically different if the party is returned to power and I for one won't be putting a cross next to the Labour candidate's name until the party makes a firm commitment to renationalise, at the very least, the Royal Mail and our railways.


Last month I travelled to Serbia to speak at the international conference of the Belgrade Forum for a World of Equals.

The event was held to mark the 15th anniversary of the illegal Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, but the focus was not just on the West's policy of endless war but on the violence of the neoliberal economic system which Nato bombs are designed to protect and to help spread around the world.

Award-winning filmmaker Boris Malagurski gave a passionate speech in which he described the impact that neoliberalism has had on Serbia since the Western-financed "regime change" there in October 2000.

The gap between rich and poor has widened greatly, unemployment has rocketed - up to 34 per cent if previous methods of calculating unemployment had been maintained - and a whole generation of young people are struggling to build a meaningful future.

In 2012 it was estimated that 100,000 people in Serbia lived below the lower bound of the poverty line.

As bad as things are today for the majority of people in Serbia, they look set to get worse.

Serbia's new neoliberal government has reaffirmed its commitment to a new IMF deal and has pledged to "reform" the public sector - in other words, to embark on a programme of mass privatisation, in pursuit of its aim of EU membership.

While Western capitalists will be rubbing their hands with glee - the Financial Times reports that "investors are likely to be heartened by the result" of the election - the programme of the new government will only mean more misery for the majority of Serbs who have seen all the promises of a better future made by their politicians over the past 14 years come to nothing.


The first time I met and spoke to the late, great Tony Benn was on a march in London against the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.

I asked him if he could sign for me a copy of his book Arguments For Socialism, which coincidentally I had bought in a state-owned bookshop on a 1998 visit to Belgrade, the city which Nato was then bombing.

Arguments For Socialism was published in 1979 but should be republished today, as it is as relevant now as it was then.

While defending the record of the nationalised industries and public corporations, Benn realised that public ownership on its own was not enough - we needed proper democratic control of the nationalised industries.

"Herbert Morrison's achievement in establishing our main public industries was a formidable one and history will record it as such," he wrote.

"But it is now equally important that the labour movement should turn its mind to the transformation of those public corporations for our socialist purpose. Namely, that policies and institutions must serve the people and not become the masters."

There could be no more fitting tribute to Tony Benn than to make sure that when we do succeed in getting the Royal Mail, the railways, the buses, the energy and utility companies back in public ownership, that we also campaign for those new state-owned companies to be democratically run and accountable.

We want publicly owned enterprises owned by, run by and accountable to ordinary people, with the highest-paid employees in the company only allowed to be paid five times the amount paid to the lowest, with workers of the company and ordinary members of the public on the boards.

In other words, we don't want any kind of public ownership, we want genuinely democratic public ownership of the sort which Benn argued for.


Neil Clark is the director of the Campaign for Public Ownership (, [email protected]). You can also follow him on Twitter @NeilClark66.


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