It was a “public consultation” apparently – or was it a “community forum”? Anyway, it was being run by a couple of people from Post Office Ltd, who didn’t take very kindly to community member Mil Rai suggesting that if it was a community forum, the attendees, being locals, were in charge of it.

mil helping
Mil Rai from St Leonards community and the speaker from the Post Office Public Affairs Team

The purpose was to discuss the replacement (by franchising out) of the St Leonards Crown Post Office. I went along there partly to point out that I’d been using the St Leonards PO since they closed our central Crown PO so to me, downgrading the St Leonards one seemed a bit much, but I also went along to take a good look at the Post Office Public Affairs Team in action. As I ranted on a blog post near here, they exist “to ensure that the external stakeholder and political environment supports the Post Office strategy.” Here they are… Post Office Ltd public affairs team

meeting2It was quickly established that the vast majority of the forum (or consultation?) attendees did not like the sound of the franchise, did not want their Post Office downgraded to a counter in a shop and could not see how it would last, as there are six “convenience store/newsagents” within spitting distance. A lot of time was spent extracting from the speakers how long it was intended to last, and what guarantee there was of it remaining in any form. The answer seemed to be five years or ten, according to which slant the answer was taking.

We were all very noisy, especially me (apologies to anyone sitting near me – the franchise currently running audiology at the local hospital has decided to give itself 12 weeks rest before buying me new hearing aids, so I can’t currently hear myself). I looked at the franchisee and the two PO speakers while it was all going on, and two of them (the franchisee and the woman doing all the “answering”) seemed remarkably blasé in their task of taking the heat. It’s called “handling local noise” – it’s explained on the Post Office website. It says…

quote from PO website

sign twoSpeaking of the Post Office website, there was some confusion about who the “stakeholders” were. The speaker listed various groups, including customers or users. Someone pointed out that customers were notably missing from the list of stakeholders on the website. That would be a mistake, the speaker said, she was sure they’d soon get it corrected, in fact she’d phone them in the morning – and on she swept. I looked for more examples of “handling local noise”. There were one or two masterly attempts at deflection. She perked up noticeably whenever criticism or doubts about the franchisee were voiced, and leapt happily to his defence (which, in effect, strengthened the idea that we all thought it was his fault and were being nasty to him).

She pointed out that the Post Office were off-loading the task of running St Leonards PO because it’s “in decline” and “not viable” but she could not come up with any figures, or any reason why they were so sure the franchisee would successfully do what they were failing to do. She did mention staff costs at one point, but bit that down quite quickly after being asked what had happened to the properly trained, properly paid staff that used to run the Central PO.

St Leonards 'save our PO' campaignersThe leader of the local council, Peter Chowney sat calmly in the midst of all this with his hand up for a commendably long time (my arm was falling off before I got the chance to say my piece) and when he finally got to speak, he said that he hadn’t been sure what kind of consultation this was, as HBC had been informed by letter some time ago that the PO was going out to franchise. He’d written to various people, saying the council didn’t approve the change, and was told it was a done deal. So, he said, the consultation was a puzzle – until he thought about the property aspect, and having listened to this “consultation”, he felt sure that the purpose of that franchise was to gradually fail so that in five years (or ten years, whichever it really is) Post Office Ltd would have a valuable, empty, town centre building to sell. Much more use to money-magnets than having a PO to run.

That’s neo-liberalism for you – asset stripping.

One of the leaders of the protest pointed out then that the two speakers weren’t really to blame, they were just doing a job. Yes, “handling the noise”. I looked at the speaker, and I thought, yes and no. It’s a job she’s chosen to do, a job she’s paid for. Neoliberalism isn’t a thing on its own. You can’t scoop it up and carry it around in jars. It only exists in the form of people who choose to operate that way, and she had chosen to do so. There is a reason for turning away from her though – it is that her job is to be a decoy.

That is how neoliberalism works. It is quite possible the franchisee and this speaker woman were privately wondering if they were being paid enough for the crap they were taking tonight – or maybe they’ve got their eyes on nice cosy jobs that have been dangled as a future reward for playing decoy at events like this. Oh no – never trust the promises of a neoliberal asset-stripping set up!

She certainly told us she speaks at a lot of events like this one, and praised the “passion” of the attendees. She said it’s the same everywhere she goes – the passionate engagement of the community with…

That word “passionate” is the key. I don’t think she was really troubled by all the “local noise”, nor did she see us as adversaries, except in a dramatic, set-piece sense. I expect she got her current job by selling herself to Post Office Ltd with assurances that she herself is “passionate”, “committed” and good at “engaging”. The thing about all those words is that they describe a kind of energy, a kind of action, but they carry no hint as to a predicate. Passionate about what? Committed to what? Engaged with what? As soon as you answer any of those questions, you open the door to value judgement. What are you working for? Is what you are doing helpful or destructive? Can you be “passionate” and “committed” in the abstract? It would seem neoliberals can. And they can sell their skills.

That’s the thing about neoliberalism. People are “local noise” and they are to be “handled” with things like “engagement” and “commitment”. You don’t even have to hate them, to do that “handling”. Leave good and bad at home, when you go to work for an asset stripper – all that matters is whether what you’re doing is working.

meetingThe other side of the coin is community. Looking around that room tonight, I saw all kinds of people. People who might not see each other as natural company normally – but now, applauding each other, reinforcing each other’s points, investing in, and becoming attached to, each other. They were easily clever enough to see the real reason why they shouldn’t spend all their energy on our speaker woman. She is a decoy. She praised their passion, probably genuinely, but with the intention of sending them all home feeling they’d “had their say” and that would be the end of it.

It is fortunate that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Neoliberalism ultimately empowers and strengthen communities by drawing them together in self-defence. The communities decide just how much they’re going to see stolen from them before they see the decoys for what they are, stand together and build the fightback. It was a joy to see that happening tonight. Those people have not been deflected. Many had done very good research. They brought paperwork, they made numerous useful points – and they listened to each other. The “noise” the Post Office Public Affairs team will have to deal with now is what all those people do with all that they learned from each other tonight. I don’t think they’ll have any trouble reaching those ministers and national stakeholders in a way that could knock Post Office Limited off course.

po roberts strip

Good luck St Leonards – I’m looking forward to seeing your next moves!

According to the Hastings and St Leonards Observer, The consultation period lasts six weeks – until August 9 (although we were told last night, and the council told back in June, that Post Office Ltd have decided what they’re doing). To have your say, visit postofficeviews.co.uk, email comments@postoffice.co.uk, phone 03457 22 33 44 or write to FREEPOST Your Comments, the Post Office.

I suspect though, you might do more good by contacting the ‘Save St Leonard Crown Post Office’ people, who are on Facebook, here

Thanks to Alan Roberts for use of his excellent photos.