Greasy Pole: Post Offices – Open or Shut?
“By all of capitalism’s standards of logic the Post Office must be under threat of disappearing”
Postman Pat, delighting children by zooming around Greendale with his observant cat Jess, became a TV success by cashing in on the romance which lingered around the workers who, in all weathers and at all places, delivered the mail. How would Pat survive now, with Greendales’s post brought by a tee-shirted trolley-pusher jigging along to loud calypso music from his radio, who is liable to stuff as much junk advertising material through the letter box as proper mail? It was not always like this; well within living memory postmen (they were always male) wore thick, dark uniforms topped by a hard helmet resembling the pickelhauber of the German Army at the start of the 1914/18 war (the peaked caps, just as obligatory, came later). No trolleys then; postmen had to carry the mail in a large, rough sack slung across their shoulder held by coarse string. And they came several times a day; before the age of the telephone it was common for people to tell their family or friends that they would visit them on the following day by writing them a post card – relying on the post to get the message there on time. No wonder the posties had so exhaustive a knowledge of their round – who lived where and with whom, how well, or how sick, they were, who had a birthday when. It was this sense of human contact that brought many postmen to be addicted to the job. Like Postman Pat.
Along with your friendly neighbourhood postman, as part of the same deal, is – or in some cases was – the local post office – also friendly, in fact at times so much so that it resembled a kind of minor, casual branch of the Samaritans. Because it was here that local people came, not just to buy their stamps and postal orders or draw their pension but to unload their anxieties or celebrate their successes. They were more small shops than post offices, selling newspapers, food and the like. It is a general assumption that they existed only in rural areas, in small sleepy villages but in fact they survive, supplying their locality, in many a town and city. One example was given by Keith Hill, the MP for Streatham, in a House of Commons adjournment debate on 13 March 2008. He described the Abbeville Road post office in Clapham, a part of London where roses do not grow sweetly around the doors of quaint cottages and no ploughman homeward plods his weary way. This post office was under threat of closure (it has now closed); in its defence Hill praised the services on offer there, making it “a focal point in the community” and “a lifeline of human contact for its many elderly customers”; a petition with over 2000 signatures testifies to this.
In that same debate Pat McFadden, the Minister for Employment Returns, after the customary emollients about what a brilliantly eloquent speaker and industrious MP Hill is, gently reminded him of the real facts of capitalism’s life, the sense of which is that it is all very well talking about how valued a service may be but what counts is whether it makes a profit or a loss. And by those standards the Post Office network does not show up well; according to McFadden last year it lost £174m, with the cost of some operations high enough to make any accountant with an eye to a balance sheet choke. The postal system as we know it, including pre-payment through adhesive stamps (the famous Penny Black), arose from the demands of 19th century industry and commerce. In the same way, many of the Post Office’s present problems are due to it falling behind changes in technology, which have led, for example, to eight out of 10 pensions being paid electronically into a bank instead of being drawn over the Post office counter, after a chat with the staff about their family. Car tax can now be paid online, which is quicker and easier than queuing up with people wanting a book of stamps. While people may get some relief, enjoyment even, in being able to drop into their local branch but that is not how commodity society operates. By all of capitalism’s standards of logic the Post Office must be under threat of disappearing as an unvarying, ubiquitous feature of social life.
Chosen to make this happen was Adam Crozier, a man who, even before he got to work on shredding the Post Office network, might have been described as controversial. For example after closing some 4600 offices, cutting the work force by 45,000, in 2007 he collected a 26 per cent increase in his basic pay; with his bonus and pension his total came to £1.250.000. However perhaps he will not be so busy in future. In November the government, anxious to placate back benchers being lobbied by irate Post Office customers and to persuade the electorate that they have the recession under control, decided that the Post Office would keep the contract to run the Card Account, which had seemed about to be passed to a private company. This surprising move is expected to prevent some 3000 closures. When it came to explaining so abrupt and emphatic a change of policy the government were able to call on Minister of Work and Pensions James Purnell, who has shown himself well capable of shamelessly defending any policy – or change of it. Taking time off from harassing the sick and unemployed he told MPs that the Post Office “…is seen as safe, secure and reliable as a provider of financial services. I believe that now cannot be the time for the government to do anything that would put that network at risk” and on BBC Radio that the Post Office is “…a social service which people look forward to visiting. It is often at the heart of local communities”. We should not be surprised at this hi-jacking of the case put by the government’s opponents for it is just another example of the blatant smoke-screening of the reality of capitalism’s chaotic nature. There is no need to watch this space because we can all guess what will happen next…