It was nice of Royal Mail to send me a message. “Delivered”, it said. To prove it, there was a photo of my parcel on the doorstep. Except it wasn’t my front door, or anything like it, but some kind of white marble flooring inside a block of flats. And there was no parcel on my doorstep.
Trying to find a Royal Mail number to call is difficult, as with most companies. Try calling and after interminable options, it says go back online or the wait will be 20 minutes. The website carries a series of frequently asked questions – none of which matched mine.
So I cheated. I found a press office email, explained my vanished parcel and said I was planning a column on Royal Mail’s troubles: true, as I’ve been intending to do this one for a while. “Our customer service team is investigating,” said a press officer. Next day, the chairman and chief executive’s office wrote to me, promising to “make every effort to recover the item”. So far, at the time of writing, my granddaughter’s present is still lost in the post, or under someone else’s Christmas tree.
Royal Mail is yet another disaster privatisation, a great national utility sacrificed to relentlessly persistent Thatcherite ideology. Last year, it made a £1bn loss. First-class stamps cost a monster £1.25 each, Ofcom having allowed repeated recent rises. Screwing down its staff caused 18 days of strikes, costing the company £200m. It was so badly handled that its chief executive and other senior staff left the company soon after.
What was the coalition government thinking, when it sold Royal Mail off in 2013 – long after rail, water and energy had become scandalous failures? It, too, was sold off at a knockdown price – the National Audit Office said it was at least £750m too cheap.
Energy company Bulb looked set to make a fortune, until it went bust in 2021, falling back on a massive state guarantee of £6.5bn. Railtrack collapsed into renationalisation, while railway companies are tumbling back towards state ownership. Gordon Brown’s weird part-privatisation of the London tube collapsed in expensive ignominy. Water companies paid out unaffordable profits to shareholders, underspending on leaks, which are now spewing sewage into rivers and coast.
Consider the pointless destructiveness of Royal Mail’s disintegration. It has an onerous but magnificent obligation to deliver letters and parcels for the same price to each of the realm’s 30m households six days a week, out to far-flung bothies and across waterways. Its place in national life includes Postman Pat and novelist Anthony Trollope (who invented the letterbox), riding the country on horseback for years to set the service up. The everyday postie watching out for elderly people is a social service.
With that obligation came an essential monopoly, which was broken. Now see the avalanche of delivery companies crisscrossing each other, over, and over, to deliver parcels to the same front doors. In Sorry We Missed You, the film-maker Ken Loach graphically portrayed the underpaid, bogus-self-employed hardship of those delivery drivers, with no toilet breaks or meals. Think of the needless carbon emissions and congestion.
For the crucial final mile of deliveries – the mile that costs most to operate – it should be quite enough for every household to get just one delivery a day of letters and parcels. But last month, Royal Mail even lost its monopoly on delivering its own parcels from Post Office branches.
Since last year, Royal Mail has cut 10,000 jobs. And it’s no surprise that there are high sickness rates, since posties walk eight to 12 miles a day in all weather, for which they’re paid between £25,000 and £30,000. No doubt one of its 16,000 Christmas temps mis-delivered my parcel – my regular never would.
It would make no sense for Labour to spend billions it doesn’t have to buy back our great national utilities. But it can make regulators enforce their contracts to the letter, with serious fines for noncompliance. As the Guardian’s financial editor, Nils Pratley, points out, Royal Mail’s £5.6m fine for delivering only 82% of first-class letters on time was tiny, considering its £7.4bn revenues. If water, rail and energy firms can’t fulfil their contracts, they must go bust and fall back to the state. If Royal Mail can’t comply then it should return to public ownership. Complex to arrange, but restoring its monopoly on the daily delivery of parcels would raise enough profits to modernise and pay enough staff decently. Hard to fine-tune but not beyond the wit of a good government.
Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for my granddaughter’s present to be delivered.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist