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It’s not just about your letters arriving late

October 11, 2007

Britain has been gripped by a serious postal strike this past week, which has included wildcat action as workers have returned to work to find new practices imposed.

Postal workers are on the front line of the struggle for decent public services.

Modernisation, flexibility, profitability: these are the buzz words we’re hearing in the postal strike. Trade unions are dinosaurs resisting progress, the post office needs to modernise to be able to compete with private companies.

But does it?

It’s a service – even a capitalist economy needs basic infrastructure to operate, and there’s no evidence the private sector can provide this.

Tony Benn has an excellent article on this in The Guardian:

Let us be absolutely clear. The Post Office is being systematically and deliberately destroyed. And the British government is standing by and letting it happen.

It was Charles II who established the General Post Office in 1660, and Rowland Hill who introduced the penny stamp (1840) and recognised that the cost of handling mail was not the distance the letters travelled but the number of times they were handled. The postal service in the 19th century was the equivalent of the internet. Local post offices were a public service too: in the early days, if you paid a shilling the postmistress would write a letter for you and explain how to deal with social security forms.

But now this great service is being challenged. First by the EU, which has insisted on liberalisation and demanded competition. If there were real competition, however, the competitors would have to put up their own blue pillar boxes, employ postal staff and open post offices, deliver to the most outlying areas at the same price, and deliver braille materials, free, for the blind.

If you think it’s essential for public services to make a profit, have a look what private health care has brought to the US. From the New Statesman:

But Americans will never accept – shock, horror, gasp – socialised medicine, will they? Letting the government dictate which doctor they should have and what treatment they receive? Like those poor old washed-up Brits? For decades, that contrived chorus of indignation from the combined might of the medical industry itself, the pharmaceutical giants, the supine politicians who do their bidding and the pliant, unquestioning media has worked wonders in perpetuating a con trick. The result until recently has been that, aided by stupendous self-delusion and ignorance, most Americans really have been brainwashed into thinking they have the best health care system in the world.

Or, indeed, what financial pressure does to the UK’s otherwise excellent health service: 90 people died due to poor care because a health board was too busy trying to balance the budget and meet targets to care for patients properly.

Another good example of market failure is Britain’s rail service. It’s hardly been upgraded in 100 years, and needs massive investment if we want to tackle climate change, but it’s not going to happen when you have different companies in charge of track, maintenance and rolling stock. Their loyalty is to their shareholders.

That’s market solutions for you.

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