One of the central acts of the Liberal Democrat conference was the affirmation of the policy to sell off the Post Office.
If you recall, the Liberal Democrats have made great capital trying to blame the government for closing urban post offices. So what can these plans mean?
The proposal is for the Post Office Counters business to be hived off from the Royal Mail delivery organisation. The former will remain in the public sector while the rest is sliced up for sale. 51% will be divided between the government and a staff trust, with the remainder split equally between small investors/employees and the major investors. There seems to be a belief that this will inspire greater dedication to the cause of the company by the new employee shareholders. This is exceptionally unlikely. What will happen is that the staff will grab their share entitlements with both hands and sell them off as soon as possible - as will the small investors. The big privatisations of the 80s (British Gas, BT, etc) haven't created a massive share-owning culture - most buyers sold out as soon as they could to make a quick profit. Shares are largely in the hands of the institutional investors like pension funds.
If you seek a model that generates employee involvement, why not try the John Lewis Partnership? There, each of the 60,000 employees owns part of the business - they have a real interest in the success of the company, not just a short-term profit.
So, this newly privatised company will have a cash fund of around £2 billion, which has to be spent on sustaining the publically-owned post office network. Well, actually, most of the post offices are privately-owned small businesses. Effectively, this will be a subsidy for the private sector to support a structurally-flawed business model.
For many years, your local post office has relied upon the handling fees for paying out benefit and pension cash. Increasingly, clients are having their benefits paid directly into their bank accounts, which helps to reduce theft and fraud, as well as cutting out the costs and risks of transferring large amounts of cash around the country. While the current cohort of pensioners may not be used to using direct debits and card accounts, the next generation - people like my own parents - are quite happy with electronic fund transfer and card payments.
Like it or not, the role of the post office is going to have to change, but the Liberal Democrats will tie the company into maintaining failing businesses or reopening branches where they have already failed - as Yellow Peril points out. Lynne Featherstone reckons that saddling the Post Office with this deadweight is going to allow it to compete with the new foreign entrants to the market. No. It won't.
The final question is what happens when this £2 billion fund finally runs dry? Does the government then pick up the tab for subsidising private sector businesses? Does it then let them fail naturally or does it start selling off a little more of the Royal Mail to keep it ticking over?
Yet another half-baked policy proposal from the Liberal Democrats - but then they know that with power nothing more than a pipe-dream, they can afford to play at politics rather than trying to devise real policies for the real world.