Leading article: Government has stood on the sidelines for too long

Ministers should bring both sides in this postal strike to the table
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The Independent Online

Ministers warn of the dangers of "politicising" the present postal strike. Sadly for them, that particular parcel has been wrapped, processed and dispatched. This strike is now firmly in the political arena.

David Cameron taunted Gordon Brown in the House of Commons this week for lacking the "courage and leadership" to avert the strike. And the leader of the Communications Workers Union, Billy Hayes, has laid the blame on the doorstep of the "minister without responsibility" Lord Mandelson.

Much of this is rhetoric. For the Opposition to attack the Government over the strike is sheer opportunism given that there is no substantive difference between the Labour and Conservative policies with regard to the future of the Royal Mail. As for the CWU leadership, it clearly feels it has an interest in drawing the Government into the dispute.

Yet it does appear that this affair has been maladroitly handled by ministers. In their determination not to become embroiled in the dispute, they have allowed it to get out of hand. Gordon Brown yesterday urged both sides to "get around the table". But as the leader of a party affiliated to the CWU and as the leader of a government which owns the Royal Mail, Mr Brown has the power to do much more than urge; he can make it happen.

This does not mean that ministers should sideline the Royal Mail management and start to negotiate terms with the union directly as was the practice in the bad old days of beer and sandwiches at Number 10. Nor does it mean the Government should scrap its sensible commitment, recommended by the independent Hooper Report, to find a private sector partner to take a stake in the Royal Mail and drive modernisation in the service.

Yet ministers should use their power to force both sides into a negotiating room with the professional arbitration service ACAS. Ministers should extract a gesture of good faith from both sides, by compelling Royal Mail management to halt its programme of hiring extra temporary workers and putting pressure on the union to get its members back to work. There is a clear public interest in forcing a settlement. Small businesses, which are already suffering intensely in the recession, are being especially hit hard in this strike.

And a solution is attainable. The conditions for an agreement between the union and management already exist in the form of the modernisation agreement secured after the last national strike two years ago.

It is true that there is bad blood between the union and ministers over the Government's commitment to part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, which might incline some postal workers to resist ministerial demands. But the Government has significant leverage, in the form of its guarantee of the Royal Mail worker's pension scheme, which is some £6.8bn in deficit. Ultimately, union members need ministers to be on their side.

The descriptions of this strike action as "tragic" and "suicidal" are entirely correct. By hurting their customers, Royal Mail's management and workers are undermining their own future. With the communications market in turmoil both sides need to be working together, not fighting each other. It is time for the Government to step in and save both sides in this dispute from their own folly.