SPIRIT OF ’78

DiscontentAs if the past two or three years haven’t been difficult enough, yet again it’s the hospitality industry that’s being punctured by the sharp end of the latest crises. Footage of empty bars, bistros and restaurants in central London this week were mainly blamed on just one of the seemingly myriad industrial disputes of the moment, that being staged by rail workers. Naturally, this is the time of year when organised parties descend on such venues and get the festive cash tills ringing; but after being brought to its knees by lockdown and then being forced to limit its custom due to the inconvenience of social distancing regulations once reopened, hospitality is now confronted by endless cancellations and the non-appearance of impromptu punters due to the fact that commuting has been severely impacted of late. Much like the Labour Party, one almost gets the impression a union leader such as the RMT’s Mick Lynch isn’t so much concerned with improving the lot of the working man as he is with scoring political points over a government not necessarily in tune with his own worldview. That’s not to say the Conservative Party hasn’t provoked a good deal of this – far from it; but while the current stalemate produces no winners, losers are abundant – whether they be small businesses struggling to make ends meet or simply the browbeaten general public, confronted by even fewer reasons to be cheerful as the chain reaction of industrial action goes viral.

Right now, the roll-call of ongoing or imminent strikes seems to expand on a daily basis. We’re already feeling the effects of rail and postal workers withdrawing their labour at a time when we’re most dependent on it, but the Christmas & New Year schedules promise everyone from nurses to Border Force officers to bus drivers to baggage handlers to junior doctors to driving examiners to teachers to university staff and civil servants will at some point be declaring ‘Everybody out!’ 10,000 ambulance workers are also set to strike, though considering how long one has to wait for an ambulance to arrive these days, one wonders if anyone will actually notice. Of course, now we’re in December, the Royal Mail being afflicted by this virus is the one industrial dispute that is already proving to be a more effective souring of the seasonal spirit than a ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ Xmas special. Ever since the knock-down sale of the Post Office by Old Mother Cable during the Coalition years, the split between it and the Royal Mail has hardly been a roaring success, with the scandal that saw the false imprisonment and ruined reputations of hundreds of sub-postmasters during the Horizon IT affair emblematic of this centuries-old institution’s decline and fall.

As used to be the case with the music business (and remains so with the publishing industry), Christmas is the one period of the year when a public now largely content to spend its money and time online actually gets off its arse, fuelling an upsurge in productivity where Pat and his black & white cat are concerned. Therefore, it doesn’t take a genius to calculate this is the most opportune moment for postal workers to strike. Sure, when it comes to birthdays, many today prefer the instant method of issuing a meme, message or humorous image on the likes of Facebook or Twitter to mark the occasion rather than the antiquated ritual of buying a physical card and popping it in the post box; but Christmas remains the one exception to the new rule, whereby season’s greetings are still dispatched the old-fashioned way. And then there’s also the gifts requiring packaging, carried to the counter of a post office now often reduced to an appendage to a supermarket or shop or – in the case of my own ‘local’ – a library. This annual ceremony is entered into by millions up and down the country, and those millions expect their parcels to be delivered to the recipients at least before 25 December. I wonder how many of those millions saw the images from the Royal Mail’s main depot in Bristol yesterday.

The photographs highlighting a backlog of packages so immense that it has spilled beyond a building no longer big enough to house it included a shot of a fox wandering amongst the undelivered goods open to the elements; the accompanying story also suggested rats have been feasting on the overspill. Although the Royal Mail responded by claiming parcels at the depot are ‘moving very quickly through the centre and on to the next stage of their journey’, an anonymous member of staff at the Bristol Mail Centre told a different story, rubbishing an idea to cover the exposed parcels by pointing out ‘It would have to be the biggest tarpaulin in the world as everything has been ruined’; a spokesman for the Communication Workers Union said, ‘This backlog will take a month to clear…if you post a first-class letter or parcel today, hand on heart, I do not know if it will get there before Christmas Eve – that’s the truth, but it’s not what people are being told.’ Reports indicate hand-delivering cards is becoming an alternative, with trust in the Royal Mail diminishing due to the strikes; but not everyone lives within walking distance of a card’s destination. What if the recipient resides at the other end of the country – or in another country altogether?

Inevitably, images of the mountainous backlog offering urban vermin an early Christmas treat revive memories (if you’re old enough to have them) of the piles of uncollected refuse that contaminated pavements 44 years ago during what is remembered as ‘The Winter of Discontent’. For three months between November 1978 and February 1979, Britain gave every impression of falling apart at the seams with a series of private and public sector strikes bringing the country to a grinding halt. Everyone from bin-men to hauliers to NHS staff to gravediggers downed tools and took up placards to picket the workplaces they wouldn’t return to until receiving a pay rise. For several days in the run-up to Christmas, the BBC temporarily shut down, with its TV output off the air and the then-four national radio stations combining into an uneasy mix of a solitary network service; meanwhile, small screens in the Yorkshire TV region were blacked-out for the entirety of the festive season. ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ was the Sun’s headline response to PM Jim Callaghan accusing the press of being parochial as he came into the cold from a summit meeting with other world leaders in the Caribbean, a costly moment of misjudgement on a par with Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ comment over 30 years later.

The swingeing measures of Callaghan’s Labour Government to combat spiralling inflation had exasperated the Party’s natural allies in the unions and, in turn, the actions of the unions alienated vast swathes of the electorate with time running out on a Parliament that had been in session since October 1974. Having been denied the right to vote by Callaghan’s decision to abandon an autumn Election, when that Election eventually arrived in the spring, memories of the winter were still fresh and the public instead took a gamble on Mrs Thatcher. Labour wouldn’t be in office again for 18 years. Compared to the bleak chaos of 1978/79, current events appear lightweight – at least for the moment. But this certainly feels like the most severely the public have been tested by industrial turmoil since that period, coming as it does hot on the heels of an endless run of doom ‘n’ gloom designed to sap the spirit.

After one Christmas that was all-but cancelled and then one which was given the green light at the eleventh hour, the prospect of returning to pre-pandemic festivities was deemed by some as the antidote to recent trials; yet now even that prospect is in peril courtesy of union moves that ultimately prove counterproductive in garnering public support, however much most agree on the uselessness of this Government and the unfair distribution of wealth on its watch. The blame game is naturally in full swing, but although there remains a niggling suspicion that the excessive coverage given to the cost-of-living crisis is in part another offshoot of the Project Fear narrative, the impact of real strikes on real lives is indisputable, not to mention making those lives even more boring than they already are.

© The Editor

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001My neighbourhood has one post office – a relatively large one in comparison to some, and very rarely empty; its solitary presence means those seeking the service it offers have nowhere else within walking distance, and it is a genuine oasis surrounded by a desert of trendy bars, coffee shops, pizza emporiums, foreign food outlets and numerous other businesses that exploit obesity. However, rumours recently reached me that whichever horrible corporation owns the premises it has occupied for decades has trebled the rent over the last twelve months in a bid to force the post office out, and this essential community hub now either has to be reduced to sub status in a supermarket or simply disappear forever.

62 post office branches were earmarked for closure last year; a further 37 have been pencilled-in for the same fate this year with an estimated 420 jobs to go. The network of post offices across the country has shrunk around 30% over the past three decades, though the service still has upwards of 17 million customers a week. The increasing trend towards buying and sellng online should, in theory, have revitalised an industry whose traditional income was based around that quaint archaic practice of sending letters, yet continuously falling revenue gave the Government an excuse to capitalise on the situation four years ago.

A public institution aged 500 years young was deemed to be a source of shameless profit for our friends in Whitehall when they took the decision to sell off Royal Mail, thanks in no small part to the persistent pushing of Westminster’s very own Iago, Mr Mandelson, after deregulation opened the market to competition in 2006. Like so much privatisation since the mass closing down sale instigated by Mrs T back in the day, the benefits for the humble customer in the event of a family silver auction have been secondary to private profiteering where the post office has been concerned.

Following the notorious sale of Royal Mail in 2013, a report by the National Audit Office claimed the Government’s hasty flogging of the business cost taxpayers an estimated £750 in just one day. Deliberately undervaluing the share price, the Government entrusted the sale to Old Mother Cable in his role as Business Secretary under the Coalition; disregarding warnings from the City, Cable went ahead with his intentions to float Royal Mail at 330p a share and set aside 16 long-term investors to have priority access. Almost half of these investors sold their shares a matter of weeks later, many to the same hedge funds that Cable had labelled ‘spivs’, making a handsome profit in the process. The Government followed suit in 2015, selling its remaining 30% stake, formally ending its centuries-old connection to the service in the most unedifying fashion. I don’t claim to understand the intricacies of privatisation, floatation and the FTSE 100; but I recognise a rip-off when I see it.

For all the flak they continue to take from revisionists, the Victorians’ sense of Christian zeal when embarking upon their moral reform of the nation’s wellbeing wasn’t restricted to a specifically religious mantra. The codification and new professionalism of sports such as association football and rugby league; the right of every child, whatever their social origins, to receive education for free; the laying out of landscaped civic parkland; the creation of public libraries and public swimming baths – all were designed to open doors to intellectual and physical improvement that only the moneyed classes had previously had access to.

Although the postal service became available to the public under the reign of Charles I, the advent of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, along with the introduction of pillar boxes twenty years later, chimed with the reforming spirit of the age – one that our supposedly enlightened era would find utterly alien. The formation of the National Health Service in 1948 was perhaps the last grand gesture of benevolence by the State in the nineteenth century tradition, devised by men born during Victoria’s reign and influenced by the ethos of their childhoods. The decline and fall of the NHS over the last couple of decades is, amongst many other things, a cracked mirror on the death of the concept of the common good.

The farming out of public services (or ‘outsourcing’, to use the official title), whether contracting the running of prisons to private companies or switching every customer helpline of your energy supplier to the broken English of the Indian Subcontinent, may seem unrelated; but each development of this nature in its own little way contributes towards the alienation and detachment from institutions many feel today, an alienation and detachment less prevalent when public ownership of public services gave everyone a sense of having a stake in society, even if they were down to their last couple of quid.

One small example came my way recently when a friend applied to work in the care sector; because the pay is so poor, jobs aren’t hard to come by, though she will have to wait upwards of two months to actually begin work due to the endless CRB-type checks she now has to undergo, the sort familiar to anyone working with society’s most vulnerable. These checks are in the hands of – wait for it – none other than the Metropolitan Police Force!

If that doesn’t fill you with confidence, it’s interesting to note that the overseas employees she’ll be working alongside (largely from Eastern Europe) aren’t investigated re their employment history in the country of their origin and are essentially ‘fast-tracked’ into the job. Whilst the unblemished record of a native is subject to scrutiny that instantly assumes all Brits are sadistic Paedos in the making, an immigrant worker who may have previously committed the kind of crimes CRB checks are supposed to safeguard against can effectively walk into a position without any additional delays. Of course, that’s not to say an immigrant worker is any more likely to have a dodgy past than any home-grown employee in the care sector, though surely the same rules should apply to all.

Such a farcical scenario may not appear to be connected to the imminent closure of my local post office, or indeed the disappearance of hundreds of post offices throughout Britain since 2013; but it does seem indicative of the cheap, selfish, suspicious, mistrustful, nasty little country we’ve become and how inequality in all its myriad forms has seen Us and Them assert itself as the dominant narrative of the day.

© The Editor