After Royal Mail, what will be privatised next, the Royal family?

The armed forces?

Already banned from unionising, should be easy to squeeze profits out of service-personnel. No doubt money could be made in sale-and-rent-back deals…

Perhaps the police forces could get “private investment”?

God knows, with ACPO a private company already, there could be plenty of money in driving down the pay and conditions of police officers. 999 could be changed to a premium-rate number…

Paul Feldman notes:

The extra £500 billion in liabilities taxpayers are said to be facing to prop up RBS and Lloyds will take the state’s commitment to the insolvent banking system to a staggering £1.3 trillion (£1,300,000 million if it makes the total any easier to understand). That’s equivalent to the value of the British economy’s output for a whole year.

Meanwhile, on the back of a paltry – by comparison – £5,900 million deficit in the Royal Mail’s pension fund, New Labour is planning to sell off part of the company to a transnational corporation. New investment will be undertaken at the price of “modernisation” of this nominally public service, resulting in large-scale job losses and price increases. The break-up of post office services is an indication of what is to come.

That, at least, is the plan and it is entirely consistent with New Labour’s role in life. This is to use the capitalist state to create opportunities for global companies operating in Britain to extract maximum profits from working people. With the capitalist economy in freefall, new opportunities for profit-taking are most welcome by business and part-privatisation does just that.

Well, who honestly believes that the private investor will be willing to bail out the pension fund as the government was trying to claim?

The investor will not be acting as a charity – it’ll be after the loot. And that will come from cuts in services, job losses, and increased costs to consumers. Whatever happens, the pension fund will be rescued by taxpayers.

Neil Clark, writing in the Morning Star, has been looking into the details of the possible sale:

The three leading contenders for a 49.9 per cent stake in the Royal Mail are Dutch postal operator TNT, Deutsche Post subsidiary DHL and private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. The Sunday Express informs us that “TNT and CVC are serious in their intentions.”

In fact, CVC is very serious in its intentions – it has been lobbying the government to sell off a stake in Royal Mail since 2005.

Founded in 1981, CVC describes itself as a “global private equity and investment advisory firm headquartered in Luxembourg with a network of 19 offices across Europe, Asia and the USA.”

To see how a CVC-owned Royal Mail might operate, we need only look at the way the company ran another British institution it acquired, along with another private equity firm Permira – the Automobile Association.

Since its transformation from a mutual organisation to one owned by private equity sharks, the whole ethos of this once much-loved British institution has changed.
Over 3,000 staff have been laid off. The organisation consequently slumped from first to third place for response times.

In 2006, the AA chief executive conceded on an audio tape leaked to a national newspaper that the slimmed-down workforce was struggling to get to stranded motorists.

The prospective sell-off of the Royal Mail is already providing lucrative business for some.

TNT is being advised by the international law firm Allen & Overy, while CVC is working with Clifford Chance, the largest legal firm in the world. TNT has reportedly been sounding out investment bankers to advise it, including new Labour’s favourite money men at Goldman Sachs.

And what do the British public think of the planned sell-off? Not a lot. According to a new poll, around 75 per cent of Britons who had heard of the possibility of Royal Mail being sold opposed the idea.

Felix Jakens reports on the Westminster rally of the campaign to Keep the Post Public:

The rally was opened by CWU General Secretary Billy Hayes, who evoked the clear battle lines that this issue represents: between people’s democracy and the political elite. He went on to point out the glaring hypocrisy of the Labour government which, in its 2005 manifesto, pledged to keep the post office fully in public hands. Hayes called upon the members of the CWU to come together to make sure that the politicians behind the scheme know exactly how much power the unions hold and that they will not be ignored.

To the joy of the massed crowd, Hayes handed over the floor to Tony Benn, who was declared an honorary member of the CWU. Benn, the former Postmaster General and long time champion of postal workers rights, was on typically spirited form. He eloquently argued the position that, as a public service, the Royal Mail must be for the benefit of the people who use it, not for the benefit of shareholders. He also pored scorn on the government’s assertion that the planned partial sell-off is not about privatisation at all but about modernisation. “The markets are failing” he stated. “Why would we ever place our most treasured public service in their destructive hands?”

This sentiment was largely echoed by the subsequent speakers. Other union General Secretaries on hand to offer full support and solidarity included Tony Woodley of UNITE, Mick Shaw of the FBU, Brendan Barber from the TUC, Bob Crow of RMT, Paul Kenny of the GMB, Dave Prentis of UNISON, Mark Serwotka of PSCU and Dereck Simpson from UNITE. Every one of these individuals pledged the full and unswerving support of their unions and vowed not to bow to governmental pressure in the fight against reckless privatisation.

Other notable contributions were made from Geraldine Smith MP, who tabled EDM 428 in the first place, and who drew attention to the shockingly underhand tactics that government has reverted to, in ‘leaking’ a document stating that only through privatisation will postal workers’ pensions be protected. She argued that these bullying, blackmailing methods reveal the true face of Peter Mandelson and New Labour in their most shameful reality. There were also good turns from Frank Dobson M.P, Lord Tony Clarke and Dot Gibson of the National Pensioners Convention, each of whom re-iterated the importance and historical poignancy of this issue, as well as the scandalous truth that the plan is being issued by a Labour government.

Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, was also a speaker. Neal started by making it clear that he believes a key factor in the government’s plans is the desire to crush the industrial and political strength of the CWU, but he also called for the need to work together to present a realistic alternative to privatisation. To draw together expertise to present a future for the Royal Mail that is viable and sustainable. He further used his time at the podium to draw reference to the wider significance of this issue. The need to seize the moment and engage with the shift in national thinking and ideology, away from marketisation, towards a fairer freer society. To avert the ever steady march of privatisation in favour of public services and create the type of society we want to see, a fairer more equal society, where the benefits are for the many and not the few.

There was an overwhelmingly optimistic, spirit amongst everyone present that the CWU, in concert with public and union support could halt and reverse the government’s plans to strip this country of one of its finest assets. The message was clear; the privatisation of our other national industries and services has failed. Failed to improve customers’ service and failed, to improve workers pay or conditions. In this time of economic crisis and uncertainty, the concept of selling off one of this country’s most prized assets, for the benefit of no one but a few select shareholders, is insane. Keep the post in our hands. Keep the post public.

The threat of good deeds: why did the police arrest aid convoy men?

The state broadcaster bans a charitable appeal on behalf of charities raising funds to help Gaza residents rebuild after Israel’s attack – for fear of being associated with criticism of the “good terrorism” carried out by the UK’s ally.

Now those travelling to Gaza to deliver aid to people who have been bombed are targeted by police as though they were about to bomb people! (If only there was the same readiness to seize weapons destined for Israel!)

All of the men arrested have been released without charge. The action taken by police looks suspiciously like an Islamophobic media stunt designed to smear the Viva Palestina convoy and feed into the hysteria about Muslims that the corporate media are drumming up.

Preston’s socialist councillor Michael Lavalette wants answers:

The three Burnley men arrested on Friday night under anti-terror legislation were today (Thursday) released without charge. The men had been held for six days in a secure detention centre in Manchester. The men were arrested on Friday as they drove to join the ‘Viva Palestina’ convoy taking humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Also arrested, as part of the same operation, were six men from Blackburn. They were kept isolated in police vans for 7 hours before being released without charge. Some of those from Blackburn were religious scholars.

The arrests and the treatment of the men in question raise serious questions about policing in Lancashire and about the ‘targeting’ of both the Gaza Convoy and Muslim men in the region. There are serious questions that now need to be answered from Lancashire constabulary. Questions like:

1. Who ordered the stop and arrest of the 9 men?

2. What evidence of ‘wrong-doing’ did the police have?

3. Why (given the fact that the convoy organisers submitted all the names, passport and visa details of those on the convoy) did the police not act sooner if they had ‘real’ or ’significant’ concerns?

4. Who provided the police with the (now obviously flawed) ‘evidence’ that suggested the men were involved in wrong-doing?

5. This was clearly a national police operation. Who led the operation? Did it have Government clearance?

The suspicion is that this was a politically motivated operation to disrupt the convoy. Where are the Labour Ministers on television or in the press defending their operation and explaining the actions that were taken?

The Gaza Convoy is a humanitarian mission and the men travelling from Lancashire had vehicles that were laden with gifts from children in our area for the children of Gaza. The disruption of this trip is nothing short of a disgrace.

George Galloway condemned the timing of the arrests, the arrests themselves and the deliberate efforts of the police to create a story in the press the purposes of which appears to have been to discredit the aid convoy to Gaza. Viva Palestina reports that there was a drop of 80% in donations following the broadcast of the arrests and the police allegations on the BBC on Saturday afternoon.

“Nine innocent people were prevented by the police from joining our convoy with vital aid to meet the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” said George Galloway this afternoon.

“The follow up action by the police, which has apparently included the strip-searching of an Imam and his wife in their own home in Blackburn, has gravely damaged their relations with the community whose trust they need to win.

“Anyone with any sense can see that it is in everyone’s interest to encourage Britain’s Muslim community to engage themselves in democratic politics. That is precisely what this convoy – and the huge political, and humanitarian effort throughout Britain’s often alienated Muslim communities which lies behind it – is about.

“To arrest innocent men in such a provocative and hyped operation will achieve precisely the opposite of that engagement. The timing of the operation is seen locally as an attempt to smear and intimidate the
Muslim community and I must say they seem to be right.

“The arrests were clearly deliberately timed for the eve of the departure of the convoy. Photographs of the high-profile snatch on the M65 were immediately fed to the press to maximise the newsworthiness
of the smear that was being perpetrated on the convoy” said Galloway.

“I am writing to the Chief Constable of Lancashire to demand an explanation and will consult Viva Palestina’s lawyers with a view to seeking compensation for the real financial and public relations damage we have suffered as a result. I will also be writing to the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, to demand action against those who seem to have abused their power and authority as a police officers to produce this really damaging outcome.”

But the events of the last week also raises another significant issue. For the last two years the Government has attempted to divide the Muslim community in this country by launching a programme called Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE). PVE has come with substantial sums of money that can be directed towards projects aimed at stopping ‘extremism’. The funded projects have been varied (and its certainly the case that there is a need for ‘good projects’ in our city and amongst the poorest communities). But PVE isn’t about providing services. Its about obtaining surveillance and criminalising sections of the Muslim community.

For example, how is an potential extremist defined? People who fall under suspicion include those who have an interest in global politics (so opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or opposition to the murderous regime in Israel could lead to someone being identified as a potential ’extremist’.) Of course that could include someone like me – but I’m not subject to PVE surveillance because I’m not Muslim, and this is the crux – its the combination of the political interest with the religious beliefs and style of dress of the individual that marks them out as ’suspicious’; and its one reason why converts to Islam are particularly targetted. Here is the Government’s own document PVE – A Strategy for Delivery (May 2008), which states that:

“The most severe terrorist threat currently comes from individuals and groups who distort Islam. … It is
not the role of Government to seek to change a religion. However, where theology is being distorted to justify violent extremist rhetoric or activity and threaten both Muslims and non-Muslims, Government should reinforce faith understanding and thereby build resilience.”

PVE is actually an extension of the ‘war on terror’. Its intention is to isolate the ‘enemy within’. In this form it is no different to other historic strategies of ‘divide and rule’ that the British state has used to isolate and intimidate minorities such as the Irish community in the 1970s or Communist Party members at the hieght of the Cold War.

PVE was piloted in a number of places across Britain – including Preston and Reading. Both these areas were included because police sources argued they were ‘hotbeds’ of extremism – though there is no evidence of this being the case in Preston at all (there have been no high profile ‘terror’ arrests in Preston and there is no network of ‘political islamists’ in the city.)

In Preston one of the major PVE interventions is called the Channel Project. Here is what the police have to say about it:

“The Channel Project is all about supporting vulnerable individuals. It is a local and community-based initiative between the police, local authority and the local community. The project takes referrals from a number of sources on individuals that may be vulnerable to becoming involved in violent extremism. A joint risk assessment of each individual case is then made by project members and any issues of concern are identified. A programme of intervention tailored to the needs of the individual is then developed and implemented. Involvement of community partners is key. They will have expertise and insight into the process of assessment, referral and intervention. This process will make the vulnerable person confident
in their rejection and condemnation of violence. If you would like to know more about this initiative.”

The language used makes it seem almost ’social workesque’! The ‘needs’ of ‘vulnerable individuals’; a ‘programme of intervention’ etc. You have to stop for a minute to realise that all of this is being done without the knowledge, input or consent of the ‘vulnerable individual’! (Their ‘vulnerability’ remember is opposition or hostility to the imperial policies of the British state combined with the fact that they are Muslim!)

But of greater concern is their claim that they take ‘referrals from a range of people’ (people with a grudge? spies in the community? the security services? who?) and that ‘involved community partners’ are key.

There is an old saying that ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’. The ‘involvement of the key community players’ essentially means those that have taken funding for their projects – certainly that was the indication of what was happening in Derby and Reading (two PVE areas featured on Panorama on Monday evening): once the projects get their funding the police and security services come calling asking ’surveillance’ questions.

The PVE agenda brings a ‘dirty money’ reward to a few ‘community leaders’, but in the process it turns them into an outreach of the security services. The events of last week-end and the harassment faced by 9 innocent Muslim men in Lancashire should bring to an end this form of ‘engagement’.

Inflation or deflation?

I’ve been meaning to do a blog on inflation for a while now, but what do you know, Colin Foster has already written a piece at the Workers’ Liberty site that sums up the current hard times in old England:

Lower inflation? Not in the supermarkets

Food prices are still rising at a rate of 10% per year, according to official figures reported in the Financial Times on 18 February.

For months now, economists and the press have been predicting outright deflation – a fall in the average price level – for 2009. Prices of some staple industrial inputs – oil, gas, wheat, metals – have already gone down a lot, and the “70% off”, “50% off”, and “30% off” signs in shop windows do indicate some falling prices.

Clothing and footwear prices, for example, went down 10% between January 2008 and January 2009.

But day-to-day staples are still getting more expensive. Bread and cereals, by 10% a year; milk, cheese, and eggs, by 9% a year; coffee, tea, and cocoa by 16%. Although oil prices in the global markets have gone down, retail prices of electricity, gas, etc. are still up 36% over the year.

The real inflation rate for poorer households still remains high. And it could remain high even if overall average price levels fall.

We could face a double hit. Price falls on industrial goods and more expensive consumer goods – the sort of thing you might buy once in a while, or maybe not buy at all – tend to kill jobs. Consumers tend to postpone the expensive purchases, thus depressing market demand, and firms tend to postpone investment, in both cases because the postponement is likely to bring you a better bargain. And firms’ outstanding debts become heavier and heavier in proportion to the income from which they cover those debts, so more firms go bust.

But that sort of deflation, killing jobs, could go together with inflation in the prices of daily staples.

The case for the unions compiling a working-class cost-of-living index, and pressing for wage settlements which beat inflation even for the poorest workers, remains strong. It is even stronger because the push-out-the-cash policies pursued by central banks to try to prevent or limit deflation may well fuel rapid general price inflation at the next turn in the road, a year or two years down the line.

The trend will be for employers to push for pay freezes at best and cuts at worst – the argument that it’s better than being redundant will work with many fearing for their jobs.

Energy bills are supposed to be coming down in the short term, but will be higher in the long term. Which won’t help the govt’s stated aim of eradicating poverty amongst pensioners…

As for the government’s finances, public debt has doubled overnight!

Don’t worry, Gordon hasn’t bought a house for Jacqui Smith – it’s just the bank bailouts are being counted as part of the national debt.

Talk about inflation…

Police state in the UK?

A former securocrat issues a warning:

Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, has warned that the fear of terrorism is being exploited by the Government to erode civil liberties and risks creating a police state.

Dame Stella accused ministers of interfering with people’s privacy and playing straight into the hands of terrorists.

“Since I have retired I feel more at liberty to be against certain decisions of the Government, especially the attempt to pass laws which interfere with people’s privacy,” Dame Stella said in an interview with a Spanish newspaper.

“It would be better that the Government recognised that there are risks, rather than frightening people in order to be able to pass laws which restrict civil liberties, precisely one of the objects of terrorism: that we live in fear and under a police state,” she said.

But wait – there’s more! International criticism now:

In a further blow to ministers, an international study by lawyers and judges accused countries such as Britain and America of “actively undermining” the law through the measures they have introduced to counter terrorism.

The report, by the International Commission of Jurists, said: “The failure of states to comply with their legal duties is creating a dangerous situation wherein terrorism, and the fear of terrorism, are undermining basic principles of international human rights law.”

The report claimed many measures introduced were illegal and counter-productive and that legal systems put in place after the Second World War were well equipped to handle current threats. Arthur Chaskelson, the chairman of the report panel, said: “In the course of this inquiry, we have been shocked by the damage done over the past seven years by excessive or abusive counter-terrorism measures in a wide range of countries around the world.

“Many governments, ignoring the lessons of history, have allowed themselves to be rushed into hasty responses to terrorism that have undermined cherished values and violated human rights.’’

These warnings aren’t being heeded. In fact the nebulous category of “extremist” is to be broadened:

The government is considering plans that would lead to thousands more British Muslims being branded as extremists, the Guardian has learned. The proposals are in a counterterrorism strategy which ministers and security officials are drawing up that is due to be unveiled next month.

Some say the plans would see views held by most Muslims in Britain being classed by the government as extreme.

According to a draft of the strategy, Contest 2 as it is known in Whitehall, people would be considered as extremists if:

• They advocate a caliphate, a pan-Islamic state encompassing many countries.

• They promote Sharia law.

• They believe in jihad, or armed resistance, anywhere in the world. This would include armed resistance by Palestinians against the Israeli military.

• They argue that Islam bans homosexuality and that it is a sin against Allah.

• They fail to condemn the killing of British soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Contest 2 would widen the definition of extremists to those who hold views that clash with what the government defines as shared British values. Those who advocate the wider definition say hardline Islamist interpretation of the Qur’an leads to views that are the root cause of the terrorism threat Britain faces. But opponents say the strategy would brand the vast majority of British Muslims as extremists and alienate them even further.

This counter-terrorism “mission creep” into the realm of politics is worrying. Not least because it will be counter-productive.

If the government truly wanted to tackle violent extremism it would pull our armed forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

This would also be a hugely popular move – most especially for military families who are seeing their loved ones killed and injured in conflicts that can only make us less safe.

The Mini jobs cull, Acas, and the rights of working people

Recall the statements by Lord Mandelson after the outbreak of wildcat strikes in the construction industry centred on the Lindsay oil refinery dispute.

Don’t worry, he told us, no laws have been broken by any of the multinational companies concerned

And, no doubt, he was telling the truth.

He told us he was sending Acas, the conciliation service, to investigate. He was sure of their results: the companies would be cleared

Who wasn’t certain of this outcome?

In this upside-down England it is against the law for workers to take strike action without a convoluted process (involving warning the employer!) – even though they have made a decision to down tools – and against the law for others to join them in solidarity.

But it is perfectly legal for big businesses to drive down terms and conditions, to undercut wages, and to exclude local jobseekers from applying for work.

Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress, responds:

‘It is hardly surprising that the ACAS enquiry has found that no laws have been broken, as the major union complaint is that the law does not properly protect UK based workers – wherever they were born.

‘The EU’s Posted Workers Directive has been implemented in the UK in a way that fails to guarantee UK agreements, and recent EU court judgements have raised even more worries that the law favours employers that try to undermine existing standards.’

On a similar theme: where are the rights of all workers to receive consultation in advance of redundancy? Why are temporary workers denied the rights that their co-workers enjoy?

I’m sure Lord Mandelson would be willing to instruct Acas to investigate BMW to see if their disgraceful sacking of 850 workers with one hour’s warning was in breach of the law…