During the 1990s, I spent 2 years or thereabouts as a postal worker, after an ill-advised stint at studenthood. Every evening I would arrive at the sorting office on Padge Road, work a shift and roll out again as the rest of the world woke up.
The work was pretty tedious, but made bearable by the excellence of my colleagues. The camaraderie there was unlike any job Ive had since: some of the people from back then are even at my wedding next month. There was a pride at wearing the Royal Mail badge, and a pride at providing a service that was cheaper, fairer and more reliable than comparable systems round the world.
There was also great pride in being unionised, and being part of a strong collective workforce that was instinctively and actively political. Union members fought hard on all levels, and as such fought for a fair wage and decent conditions.
Tories hate that. Before them, miners, dockers and steelworkers had all been crushed; labelled by Thatcher as ‘the enemy within’, vilified by the right wing media and attacked relentlessly, all for trying to do a decent job for decent pay. The posties were different though. Thatcher knew that their was a greater degree of sentimentiality for them, as unlike other unionised industries, they were not concentrated in the North, but a familiar sight from the leafy streets of Surbiton as well as the slums of Sunderland. While Thatcher was a rampant free-market Tory, she was clever enough to avoid privatising them: selling a Royal asset, and one that seemed part of the fabric of British life would serve to alienate the more traditional Conservative voter.
Labour, under the auspices of the slithery Mandelson, mooted the idea for a while before quietly withdrawing the plans due to massive unpopularity, from grassroots to parliamentary party level. Rights were hacked at under all administrations, and pay slipped, but the For Sale sign remained in the cupboard.
Enter the Coalition. Cameron had no such qualms, and quickly had plans drafted to sell off. To mitigate the outrage that would be triggered, the useful idiots of the Lib Dems were used to sell the plans to a wary electorate. Vince Cable, at the time still seen as the acceptable face of free market capitalism, was put out to ensure that this would be a different type of sell off, one that would create a new class of shareholders and not be for the benefit alone of financial institutions. He put his most avuncular face on to tell us that he had received personal assurances from the City that they would not use the shares to speculate and cream huge profits off. A gentleman’s agreement, with a class of person who are barely human in their ethical lookout, let alone gentlemen.
Tories were whipped into line, those that would cheer loudest for reform would be smiled upon. Anna Soubry, our own MP, saw an opportunity to get the eye of Dave, to be seen amongst the clamorous hordes of the 2010 MP intake. She would tell a debate in the House that her constituents were fully behind the selling off. On October 27th, 2010, she claimed
In my constituency there are 700 postal workers at the Beeston Sorting Office. To my knowledge, not one of them has written to urge me not to support the bill. Two of them came to the Commons today to ask me not to support this bill, 2 out of 700.
This was, and I will stand by the strong use of language here, a lie, and a deliberate attempt at obfuscation to curry favour with the Tory whips office. When the local CWU angrily pointed out that they had sent over 150 letters to her from workers at Beeston who were also constituents of hers. They also pointed out that a CWU delegation from the sorting office had met with her beforehand and pleaded with her not to support the bill.
Our dishonourable member was not happy with having this pointed out, so tried to wriggle off the hook by saying that she had not noticed the letters until after the debate, where she found about ’30 letters in her office’.
If you’re going to mislead Parliament, then you best not forget that in a column you wrote for The Beeston Express, published date October 15th, that you were so busy , having to reply to ‘some 300 campaign postcards ‘ from constituents opposed to the sell off. Not that she’d have to buy stamps. MPs claim postage on expenses.
This misrepresentation and callous disregard for the truth led to the CWU taking more direct action. On a cold December morning, I went along with a group of posties to Soubry’s office in Beeston as they delivered a giant postcard with 600 individual signatures on (at the time the sorting office employed 650 permament workers: quite a representation) making it clear that she not represented them truthfully. A full contemporary report can be read here.
The meeting went badly, with Soubry shouting at them for their actions, ‘thumping her desk’ and refusing to listen once the cameras on the street were off her. This intransigence, this refusal to waver from a position even when evidence is laid before her has become characteristic of Soubry’s tenure as MP.
This meeting in turn triggered, in February of the following year, the largest demonstration staged in Beeston for a generation, as huge numbers of the public marched with the postal workers through town and onto a rally at the New Venture Club. Not that you’d know if you read Soubry’s email circular to constituents at the time: the march was entirely ignored and given not even the briefest of mentions.
Fast forward a few years until you arrive at this week. The Royal Mail, an asset that was turning a good profit, is sold. To what good? The sell off was a disaster, massively undervalued at a cost to taxpayers of £750 million. Kindly Uncle Cable was shown to be a buffoon by ignoring repeated warnings that the shares were undervalued. The independent National Audit Office was scathing in a report, claiming that the Coalition were so desperate to flog the shares quickly, they purposely underpriced to ensure huge take up. As a great deal of these shares were subsequently sold on at great profit as the price rose, mainly to the same financial firms that had patted Uncle Cable on his bald pate and cooed how they would be gents and not speculate for a quick buck, the only winners were the City. Effectively, a massive amount of something we all used to own was handed over to hedge funds and tax-avoiding firms. Y’know. The same people that Cable once described as ‘spivs and gamblers
The whole thing is a tremendous mess, a shameful, awful example of how this government is keen to go further than the worst excesses of the Thatcher regime and give once proud, public institutions to their city mates to squeeze dry. The concept of providing a ‘service’ is not a concern of the new owners: maximizing earnings by squeezing wages, workers rights and high standards of service are. Well done, Coalition.
Today, during Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron was asked to justify the sell off. Visibly ruffled, he lashed out, claiming that Labour had included the sell off in their 2010 manifesto. They didn’t. Again, a Tory stood up in the House and lied with intent to help their career.
I’ve been chatting to a couple of ex-colleagues from my postie days over the last few days. They are, unsurprisingly hugely depressed about the lies they were fed throughout. They are also now terrified for their jobs: 1,600 redundancies are now on the cards. What was once a great institution will be cheapened, weakened and degraded to swell the coffers of those who have too much already.
Why did this happen? Look no further than our own MP. In an attempt to curry a tiny bit of favour with the party, in an attempt to shin up the shitty pole to a ministerial post, our MP lied, misrepresented and treated us with a level of contempt that staggers even traditional blue voters. Ensure that contempt is returned in May 2015.
I’m presently without a laptop, Ol’ Smokey recently puffed his last burning fume of circuit board and went to the great motherboard in the sky. I’ve written this using a Galaxy tab, a blogging app and a Bluetooth keyboard, an incredibly ad-hoc solution and the excuse for any errors. If anyone out there has a cheap laptop I could buy / borrow, I’d be hugely grateful. The wedding, albeit much less costly than the average due to the wonderfulness of certain people helping out is still a bit tough on the pockets, so any help appreciated.
I’m spending tomorrow at a Euro Elections hustings in town organised by the Nottingham Post, more details here. It’s worth coming along, even if it is to see me being all uneasy in the presence of UKIP MEP Roger Helmer, that Pythonesque take on Grange Hill’s Mister Bronson. I wrote this about him a few years back (***warning! Gut wrenching content!****), and the other night had a awfully lucid dream that he shaved his moustache off and demanded I stroke his top lip. The horror, the horror…