The Post Office scandal is all too typical of Britain after forty years of neoliberalism, writes Colin Wilson, but people are standing up to demand justice.

The Tories are now desperate to do something for the over 900 subpostmasters wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting – not to mention those pressured into making up non-existent shortfalls out of their own pockets, or whose contracts were terminated. But the facts were known for years before the recent ITV drama – it’s fifteen years since Computer Weekly first broke the story that Horizon was unreliable, twelve years since forensic accountants Second Sight came to the same conclusion and seven years since the Post Office settled with 555 subpostmasters out of court, giving them about £20,000 each. Meanwhile, Fujitsu will have earned £1.5 billion from the Horizon contract when it ends next year, and the seven senior executives who presided over it will have collected about £37 million.

This story of incompetent managers trashing public services and walking away with millions is now a regular theme of British politics. There’s the Royal Mail, which, Aditya Chakrabortty reports in the Guardian, has missed key legal delivery targets every years since 2017 – its last Chief Exec, described by a select committee chair as ‘clueless’, left last year and is now due a payment of up to £700,000. When Royal Mail was privatised, around ten years ago, the government took advice from financial services company Lazard – they recommended far too low a share price, and paid a fine of £1.5 million for doing so. As soon as trading began, however, Lazard Asset Management scooped up millions of under-priced shares, sold them 48 hours later once their prices had risen, and made £8 million profit.

Or consider Thames Water, which provides water to about a quarter of the households in England. In 2017 it poured millions of litres of raw sewage into two rivers near Gatwick after an equipment failure, killing over 1,400 fish. Thames Water then ‘deliberately misled’ the Environment Agency. Last autumn it was revealed that the company had pumped billions of litres of raw sewage into the Thames. Boss Sarah Bentley, whose pay peaked at over £2 million a year, resigned last summer and was replaced in January by a former British Gas executive with a pay package totalling £2.3 million. Between 2007 and 2017, the company’s debts increased from £3.4 billion to £10.8 billion. In December, the Financial Times reported that ‘The utility is now under close watch by the government, which is on standby for a temporary nationalisation in case it collapses.’

This didn’t stop Thames Water paying £37.5 million to shareholders in December. But then, you have to keep international investors sweet when they include a Canadian pension fund, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, China Investment Corporation and Abu Dhabi’s Infinity Investments. The old days of simply providing people with clean water are long gone. International finance is also crucial to the west coast mainline, one of Britain’s key rail routes, now operated by Avanti, a joint enterprise involving the Italian company Trenitalia. Latest figures for Avanti show fewer than half the trains run on time. This is a familiar picture – the company reduced services in 2022, was rewarded with a new long-term contract in September, and then again introduced a new temporary timetable with more reduced services. A survey of 2,000 staff found that fewer than 1 in 6 would recommend the company as a place to work, and only 1 in 30 said they felt valued. But management are happy – as Novara Media reported in January, the company still gets performance-based bonuses from the Treasury, and a presentation for senior managers included the heading ‘Roll up, roll up, get your free money here!’

So far this is a story of incompetent managers abusing staff and customers and walking away with millions. But the ultimate example of this culture – the contempt for ordinary people, the eagerness for a quick buck, the lack of integrity – led to the deaths of 72 people. Peter Apps’ moving and detailed book Show Me the Bodies: How We Let Grenfell Happen documents how many of the companies in a complex structure of contractors and subcontractors put profit before quality work and failed to listen to the concerns and needs of the people living in the block. Most appalling of all, in practice no one took responsibility for checking the fire safety of the materials used. The key civil servant with responsibility for fire safety dismissed suggestions that a disaster was all to possible with the words which form the title of Apps’ book.

This, then, is where we are at – privatised companies out of control, their managers profiteering from what used to be public services, uncontrolled by regulators who do not regulate. The light in this darkness is that people are standing up and demanding justice – Alan Bates and the subpostmasters, clean water campaigners including Feargal Sharkey, the Grenfell residents. It would be naive to hope that Labour will change this culture of its own accord, when Starmer is desperate to reduce voters’ expectations and to love up to business. But millions of people aren’t about to kick out the Tories only to sit back and let Labour continue with their policies. The chord struck by Mr Bates versus the Post Office shows how many of us want an end to all this – an enormous audience which can be won to left-wing ideas is out there.

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