IIt was nice of Royal Mail to send me a message. “Delivered,” he said. To prove it, there was a photo of my package on the doorstep. Except it wasn’t my front door, or anything like that, but some sort of white marble floor inside a building. And there was no package at my door.
Trying to find a Royal Mail number to call is difficult, as with most businesses. Try calling and after endless options it says to get back on line or the wait will be 20 minutes. The website has a series of frequently asked questions, none of which match mine.
So I cheated. I found an email from the press office, explained my missing parcel and said I had planned a column on Royal Mail’s problems: true, as I had intended to do this one for a while. “Our customer service team is investigating,” a publicist said. The next day, the CEO’s office wrote to me, promising to “do everything possible to recover the item.” So far, as of this writing, my granddaughter’s gift is still lost in the mail or under someone else’s Christmas tree.
Royal Mail is yet another disastrous privatization, a great national public service sacrificed to relentless and tenacious Thatcherite ideology. Last year it made a loss of £1 billion. First class stamps cost a monstrous £1.25 each, with Ofcom authorizing recent and repeated rises. The dismantling of its staff caused 18-day strike, costing company £200m. The situation was so poorly handled that its CEO and other senior executives left the company soon after.
What was the Coalition government thinking when it sold Royal Mail in 2013 – long after rail, water and energy had become scandalous failures? It was also sold at a knockdown price – the National Audit Office said it was at least £750 million too cheap.
Energy company Bulb looked set to make a fortune, until it went bust in 2021, relying on a massive £6.5 billion state guarantee. The railway collapsed in the renationalization, while railway companies revert to state ownership. Gordon Brown’s bizarre partial privatization of the London Underground has collapsed into costly ignominy. Water companies have paid unaffordable profits to their shareholders, underspending on leaks, which now discharge their sewage into rivers and coasts.
Consider the needless destructiveness of the disintegration of Royal Mail. He has the heavy but magnificent obligation to deliver letters and parcels at the same price to each of the 30 million households in the kingdom, six days a week, to the most distant countries and across waterways. His place in national life includes the postman Pat and the novelist Anthony Trollope (who invented the mailbox), traveling the country on horseback for years to set up the service. The day-to-day job caring for the elderly is social service.
This obligation was accompanied by an essential monopoly, which was broken. Now see the avalanche of delivery companies crossing paths again and again to deliver packages to the same front doors. In Sorry We Missed You, filmmaker Ken Loach graphically depicted the underpaid and deceptively independent struggles of these delivery drivers, with no bathroom breaks or meals. Think about unnecessary carbon emissions and congestion.
For the crucial last mile of deliveries – the most expensive to operate – it should be enough for each household to receive just one delivery per day of letters and parcels. But last month, Royal Mail even lost its monopoly on delivering its own parcels from postal agencies.
Since last year, Royal Mail has cut 10,000 jobs. And it’s no surprise that sickness rates are high, since postal workers travel between 12 and 12 miles a day, in all weathers, for which they are paid between £25,000 and £30,000. There is no doubt that one of their 16,000 temporary Christmas workers misdelivered my parcel – my regular would never do that.
It would make no sense for Labor to spend billions when they have no need to buy up our great national public services. But it can force regulators to enforce their contracts to the letter, with hefty fines for non-compliance. As Nils Pratley, the Guardian’s financial editor, points out, Royal Mail’s £5.6m fine for delivering just 82% of first-class letters on time was minimal, given its revenue of 7. £4 billion. If companies in the water, railway and energy sectors fail to fulfill their contracts, they must go bankrupt and turn to the state. If Royal Mail cannot comply, it should return to public ownership. Complex to set up, but restoring its monopoly on the daily delivery of parcels would make it possible to generate enough profits to modernize and pay enough staff decently. Difficult to tweak, but it’s not beyond the spirit of good government.
In the meantime, I’m still waiting for my granddaughter’s gift to be delivered.