The striking postal workers have twice as much public support as the Royal Mail management, according to the first opinion poll since the dispute began.
As the Royal Mail admitted that 30 million letters had been delayed by the two-day strike which ended last night, a ComRes survey for the BBC found that 50 per cent of people sympathise most with the postal workers and only 25 per cent with the management.
The finding is a setback to the Royal Mail and to ministers, who had expected the public to be more hostile to industrial action in the run-up to Christmas. According to ComRes, men (31 per cent) are more likely to sympathise with the management than are women (19 per cent). Twice as many people in the top AB social group sympathise with the Royal Mail (33 per cent) than do in the bottom DE social group (16 per cent).
Two out of three people (68 per cent) do not believe the Royal Mail should be privatised, while only 22 per cent think that it should be. Fifty-six per cent think the Royal Mail will continue as the sole provider of door-to-door delivery for less than five years and 13 per cent believe that will last for less than a year.
The image of the friendly neighbourhood postman has long faded. Only one in seven people knows the name of their postman and in the south-east the figure is only one in four. The Royal Mail said the number of letters delayed was about 40 per cent of an average daily post bag. It condemned the strikes as "unnecessary and irresponsible".
A spokesman said: "We are very grateful to the 20 per cent of our delivery staff who have chosen to come to work and who are doing everything possible to get all delayed mail delivered to customers as quickly as possible over the next few days."
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) confirmed there will be a three-day strike from next Thursday involving over 120,000 workers. It said that this week's action by 78,000 delivery and collection workers was "solidly supported".
The union said it would accept unconditional talks at the conciliation service Acas to try to break the deadlock over pay, jobs and modernisation. Dave Ward, its deputy general secretary, said: "We have six days before any further strike action would take place. Given the progress we were making in talks earlier this week, this should be enough time to reach an agreement. We want to go to Acas with no preconditions on either side to resolve this dispute."
Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, dismissed the union's claim that he was orchestrating the Royal Mail's response to the strike as "complete stuff and nonsense from beginning to end".
He said: "What is at the heart of this dispute is the nature and speed of change at the Royal Mail and the modernisation that is necessary to secure its future." Blaming the strike on London-dominated hardline CWU branches accused of scuppering a peace deal, he said the relationship "between the management and parts of the CWU has broken down, and they have got to put it back together again and they have got to do so by talking, by negotiation rather than strike action."
Next week's 24-hour strikes will involve 43,700 staff across Britain in mail centres, delivery units in mail centres, network logistic drivers and garage staff on Thursday; 400 workers in Plymouth, Stockport and Stoke who deal with poorly-addressed mail on Friday; and 77,000 delivery and collection workers on Saturday.