I know that in 2005, when I was elected as MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, many people in the constituency voted for my party ticket rather than for me as an individual. I continue to be very aware of this fact. I am also in the fortunate position of agreeing, in a pragmatic and ideological sense, with the Conservative leadership on both the great issues of the day and the long-standing policies of our party.
That is why, up to this point, I have so faithfully followed my party line on each and every one of the issues upon which I have spoken and voted in Parliament. However, this week, for the first time in my Parliamentary career, I voted against the Conservative whip. I had no choice, for my conscience will not let me support the privatisation – whether in part or whole – of the Royal Mail.
Over the last four years, I have built up contacts, friendships and a broad base of understanding within our local Royal Mail sorting office. It is a tight, efficient and well-run unit, where day in, day out over 800 Royal Mail employees work hard to provide a communications link with the most remote parts of the constituency, and indeed much of the rest of the UK. Indeed, this sorting office has responsibility for a truly enormous area, stretching into Wales as well as covering Shropshire. The work these people do is of extraordinary benefit to the community and wider economy.
Against this background, I could do nothing else but give my commitment to the workers of the Shrewsbury sorting office that I would oppose privatisation of the Royal Mail, in any form. They have convinced me that privatisation is not the solution to dealing with the problems Royal Mail is facing. That is why I had to keep that promise and vote accordingly in the House of Commons on Wednesday night.
This Labour Government, and Lord Mandelson in particular, want to nationalise the historic pension deficit – a debt estimated at some £7 billion – and privatise the profits of Royal Mail. This is the wrong option and we must all fight to prevent Lord Mandelson from partially selling off this unique national treasure, to the detriment of taxpayers and Royal Mail employees.
I am not against privatisation, in sectors of the economy where it is appropriate. Privatisation has transformed British Telecom and British Airways from inefficient, ailing organisations into successful, profitable businesses. No sane person would want to re-nationalise these organisations.
However, Royal Mail is a much more intrinsic part of society. There are a number of different companies offering telephone service packages, and there are even alternatives to a BT landline. Flights are, for most, a luxury. But everyone – businesses, households and third sector organisations – relies on the postal network to deliver six days out of seven, at affordable cost. Only Royal Mail has the network infrastructure in place to maintain this universal service obligation. On this, even Richard Hooper – the author of the report upon which the Government’s ill-advised policy is based – wholeheartedly agrees.
We must, therefore, do everything possible to ensure that its future is safeguarded by the state. Royal Mail is too important to be run in any other way than by Britain, for the benefit of the British people. The universal service can only suffer if its focus is switched to providing profit for foreign shareholders at the expense of British consumers.
A partially privatised Royal Mail might not make cuts to vital services in remote rural areas tomorrow, or even next week or next year. But these are not short-term decisions. Who knows what the owners of a privatised Royal Mail might do in 10, 20 or even 30 years time, in the name of profit, if we start the ball rolling now.
As a Conservative, I have a duty to support my party in Parliament. It has not been an easy step for me to vote against the party I love and support, and I have not done so lightly. But I also have a duty to vote for what I believe to be in the best interests of Shrewsbury and my constituents, and I know in my heart that a privatised Royal Mail is not what they want or need. I very much hope that the Conservative Party will revisit its policies in this area and give a firm commitment that, unlike Labour, we intend to find the resources, energy, vision and management to inject new hope for a wholly public Royal Mail.