Who Will Save our Post Offices?

March 19, 2008

The entire British Post-Office network is under threat. This has echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s policy for the coal industry. If so, who will rescue our Post Offices?

Make no mistake. The prospects for the Post-Office workers of the land are as bleak as those that faced the miners under Margaret Thatcher.

In a brilliant polemic, Simon Jenkins of the Guardian puts the case against closures. His prose is as vibrant as it is compelling: Arguing that closure mania ignores the real cost of axing post offices he continues:

The state’s pursuit of shortsighted savings is ripping the heart from communities. No wonder Britain is up in arms …What causes a third of the cabinet and one in five ministers to break ranks and campaign against their own government? Is it faith academies, a massacre in Iraq, or the suspension of habeas corpus? None of these. Go out into the highways and byways of the nation and ask what moves the political soul at present. It is the threatened closure of some 2,500 local post offices. The village post office evokes the age of Hovis and prison mailbags, of bicycle clips and little red vans. It is the Miss Marple public service, the acceptable face of nationalised industry.

So why should the Government hit such a culturally precious icon?

There are echoes of the battles fought by Margaret Thatcher, who had an appetite for social pain in pursuit of economic gain. Not that she would acknowledge any such fuzzy concept as social pain, I suppose. The fundamental similarity today is the belief by Gordon Brown’s Government that there is no alternative strategy to savage cuts in the Post Office network.

Ministers point to the estimates losses of £4m a week by the Post Offices, and two minnion fewer customers over the last two years, The removal of contracts in earlier efficiency moves have contributed to the drop in ‘footfall’ .

This is used to explain the decision that 2,500 of the country’s 14,000 post offices are likely to close in 2008 .

TINA stalks the land again

TINA. There is no alternative. Is there a need to explain what TINA has come to mean? It was one of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite aphorisms. For her, it was a weapon of defense to brush aside attacks on her proposals.

TINA is implied within performances of charismatics of all kinds, in the board room as much as the political debates. It helps create a sense of helplessness in thos most affected. There seems nothing to be done against such the overwhelming force of argument.

But There are Always Alternatives

Let’s take one step back for a moment. Suppose the expression of an absolute espousal of a belief is no more than a signal of a conviction-based perspective?

This is one of the fundamental canons of human creativity. Its importance is based on recognition that one of the most powerful bocks to creativity is rooted in what is sometimes called functional fixedness, sometimes mind-set, sometimes the ‘one right answer’ syndrome. Google it, and you’ll find a lot of popular practitioners supporting the view. I’ve written about it from time to time. Another more recent example is in an article entitled How bad habits kill creativity

The Voices of Protest

There are voices of protest. As Simon Jenkins suggested, these come from unlikely comrades in arms. Or maybe not comrades but associates. Victoria Wood, a much loved comedienne, says she is prepared to barricade herself, suffragette style, to appropriate railings.

The BBC reports

Essex County Council has said it could make a profit by combining postal services with council services. The stated aim is for any investment to be used over three years to help each branch to move towards becoming financially self-sufficient and “cost-neutral”.

The Government found muted support from unlikely sources
The TaxPayers’ Alliance described the plan as “extremely risky”, adding that councils should focus on providing basic services.

Conservative MP Peter Luff, who chairs the Commons business and enterprise committee, told [The BBC’s Daily Politics Programme]: “It [the Essex scheme] may be a good idea that perhaps is being done in a bit of a hurry [because of] the “very rushed nature” of the national consultation over which post office branches should close, he added.

On Wednesday March 19th 2006, political efforts were made to weaken support on the Government side.

Shadow business secretary Alan Duncan said 90 Labour MPs, including seven Cabinet ministers, had campaigned against the closures…and that Business Secretary John Hutton could make himself “one of the most popular” ministers if he stops the closure of 2,500 post offices. But Mr Hutton claimed the Tory motion to suspend the closures was based on “false hopes, flawed economics and opportunism …”Postponing difficult decisions is rarely a sensible course of action to take… There was an “inescapable fact” that had to be accepted, “however difficult” – the role of the Post Office has changed because of technology and consumer behaviour – he said.

So there you have it. TINA.

Neither David Cameron nor Gordon Brown is showing much enthusiasm for leading from the front. This makes it a sad case, as I suggested in an earlier post about the industrial dispute at The Royal Mail, of which The Post Offices are a part.

From a leadership perspective the lack of a vision is painfully apparent. Perhaps the question is not ‘who will save our Post Offices?’ but ‘What is worth fighting for here?’

Is it the cosy image ruefully presented by Simon Jenkins? Or the nostalgia front with Victoria Wood and Essex County Council?

Or the betterment of the lot of those who have become habituated to their treatment they receive as recipients of benefits and other social services at the nearest (but increasingly distant) post-office.

The answers require something a bit better than might be found in TINA : The Sequel.

Image acknowledgement: Victoria Wood from the BBC website