Have agreed to meet up with Billy Hayes from the CWU for a one-to-one chat about the Royal Mail. Next week probably.
I'm tempted to ask if I can invite Hopi along too, as he's done an intelligent (as ever) blog on the issue, which, setting to one side the 'public good, private bad' debate, looks at what is the core issue: does the Royal Mail need someone to sort out its pensions deficit, along with significant investment, modernisation and efficiency gains? (To which the answer is yes.)
The next question then is where do you get this money from? Internal generation of revenue by raising the price of postal services, changing the competition rules so that the Royal Mail can compete on a level playing field, using the rest of the £1.2bn it was given by the Government to fund modernisation, and (possibly) a degree of cost-cutting? Would that be enough to ensure the Royal Mail's survival, in the face of a 7-8% drop each year in its business (and that's without the price rises) without future Government subsidy? I don't know - the CWU suggest, I think, that it could be.
If it's not enough, then it's about either about a Government bail-out, borrowing, or a private sector partner. The Government has already pledged to sort out the huge pension deficit, and, quite reasonably, doesn't want to stump up any more cash. And I don't have much patience with the 'what's a few more hundred million more amongst friends?' line. (Ditto the 'well you spent £Xm on the war' or 'you're spending £xm on bailing out the banks' - that doesn't mean there's loads of money to go round, it means there's a lot less!)
Could the Royal Mail borrow on the open market? Hopi thinks not. I don't know. Admittedly, interest rates are incredibly low (and have just got lower as I've been typing), but that's not being passed on to loan rates and the banks are still reluctant to lend. Could this be facilitated with a Government guarantee? The alternative is to bring in someone from the private sector who does have the funds. The union's fear is that they would then seek to recoup their investment by slashing jobs and terms and conditions. They say that is how the private sector makes money. Sometimes that's true. But it's a distortion of how the private sector works. You can also make money by winning more business, being better than others in the market, making efficiency gains which are nothing to do with terms and conditions.
The other aspect I'd be interested to know about, is that the CWU say that the postal service has lost 40,000 jobs over recent years. This shows its willingness to modernise. But how many of these job losses are jobs that no longer exist anywhere in the mail market, and how many of them are now in the private sector, with their competitors? Mail volumes have gone down across the board, there has been significant automation, so inevitably this will mean fewer workers are needed - but some of them must have been taken on by TNT and others. How do you put a figure on the number of jobs that could be lost if a private partner came in? And would those jobs be lost as a sad but inevitable consquence of modernisation or because of a dash for profits? Discuss.
Epolitix have just told me through Twitter that they're running a poll on this.