A great British institution: the Royal Mail. Photograph: Tim Graham/Getty Images
Britain is 159th in the world league table that ranks investment as a share of GDP. This is not new. Owners of British companies have long been permitted a feckless lack of responsibility. Smart countries, from the US to Germany, make sure that they insulate their companies as far as they can from the myopia and short-term greed of stock markets. Instead, the British approach to ownership exposes our companies to stock market thinking: shrivelling investment, cutting back on innovation, minimising training and hoarding cash to please their irresponsible, transactional owners.
It is a national disaster that another great British organisation, the Royal Mail, is to be cast into this maelstrom. (As I explain later, a more imaginative "protected" private model could work.) The directors of the Royal Mail will be under the same relentless hammer as those in every other British plc. They will put up prices as much as the regulator will allow, cut into universal provision and relentlessly contract out as much of the delivery to the lowest paid, least protected workers; none of this will be enough to satisfy their owners.
Eventually, the directors, vastly enriched with share options, incentive plans and 200% bonuses, will run up the white flag. Within a decade, the Royal Mail will be sold overseas, probably to another state-owned postal service, if not to a private equity fund based in a tax haven. Who knows? It could even be the Chinese communist party that ends up owning this great British institution.
You don't need to be a great seer to predict this future. It is exactly what has happened with our privatised water and energy companies. Economists will say the mail service is more efficient, rather as they discussed the way financial deregulation promoted banking efficiency up to the financial crash of 2008 without ever anticipating the costs of the crash that overwhelmed those gains. By one yardstick, this "efficiency" is guaranteed: the Royal Mail's 150,000 workforce will shrink.
But economists' definition of efficiency is pathetically narrow. It will take no account of the lost tax revenues when the Royal Mail is owned offshore, nor the cost of the state guarantees that will be necessary to support crucial investment. (See the demands from the privatised Thames Water and BT are seeking for their investment in, respectively, the super sewer and national broadband.) Neither will it measure the social impact of a diminished, expensive and fractured postal service, part of the glue that holds the country together, nor the need for state support if some unexpected event threatens. In short, any efficiency gains from privatisation have to be qualified by large costs, some of which only become obvious over decades.
Thus, although all the big six energy companies are more efficient in the sense they produce more power, with fewer employees, than they did a generation ago, any calculus of gains and losses must include the price guarantees the government offers to secure the investment Britain needs in renewable energy and nuclear. Centrica, withdrawing from its partnership with EDF Energy over building nuclear power stations, acknowledged its shareholders wanted higher returns over a shorter period than any deal the government might offer.
If energy provision in Britain were only to be delivered by British privately owned plcs pleasing their tourist stock market owners, they would all build gas-fired power stations, an energy mono-culture that would make the country reliant on one energy source. It would also be environmentally disastrous. The state cannot stand back.
We know all this, but somehow there is a political and cultural incapacity to face the reality. State ownership is seen as cumbersome, socialist, bureaucratic and hidebound. Private ownership is seen as none of those things and little mention is made of the acute depredations wreaked in the private sector. Try getting Ukip to promise that it would oppose the Royal Mail being owned by a Cayman Islands private equity fund, an Arab sovereign wealth fund or some plutocrat. There is silence. Ownership does not matter.
The Department for Business website talks loftily of ensuring that the Royal Mail has the necessary access to investment through privatisation, "untying its hands", as business minister Michael Fallon puts it. But this is the same Department for Business that was so concerned that privately owned plcs were short-termist and anti-investment that it commissioned John Kay to investigate. Even if his report shrank from any meaningful action, it at least dramatised the problem.
The model of privately owned postal companies competing in a regulated market is not a priori wrong: it seems to work in Germany with the privatised Deutsche Post. It is just that British private ownership structures maximise every adverse possibility and outcome. We are about to experience a boom in parcel deliveries as online shopping explodes. Universal parcel delivery is going to become an indispensable utility. Any government that consigns this crucial service to British-style private ownership – for a mere £3bn with 10% of shares given free to workers as a blatant bribe – is as short-termist as the stock market.
Instead, with ownership configured more imaginatively, the Royal Mail could become a de facto trust, a British postal and logistics group ready to exploit the coming boom. A creative government would transform it into a private trust with its own supervisory board on top of the management board, modelled along the lines of Deutsche Post that pro-privatisers like to cite but without ever doing any homework on the detail. For this model would be charged with ensuring managers protect and improve Britain's universal postal and parcel service, as well as seeking other commercial opportunities. The board would have public interest directors along with directors elected by the workers, enfranchised by the collective ownership of, say, a quarter of the shares in an employee ownership scheme. External investors could thus only buy into an organisation whose constitution, purpose and ownership were permanently shaped to deliver public good.
No such template has been floated. It is an opportunity Labour should seize as the embodiment of responsible capitalism. If Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna were suitably adept, they could even create a parliamentary majority, with dissident Lib Dems and Tories, for it. Apart from ideologues, no one thinks privatisation as it has been practised works and everyone knows that in a decade the Royal Mail will probably be foreign owned. On this, the Communications Workers union and the Labour party are right. But supporting the status quo is insufficient to win the argument. What they need is an alternative prospectus. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.