Leading article: Could Labour master the mandarins?

It's odd how, despite being handbagged by Margaret Thatcher and battered in the service of Tory ministers who have been deserted by their sense of proportion and parliamentary propriety, the mandarinate retains its mystique. Former permanent secretaries are feted with hardly a backward glance at their departmental stewardship. The conduct of schools, prisons, abattoirs and child support offices, let alone exchange-rate decisions, are never held to be the responsibility of the advice-givers of Whitehall - those eminent public servants who, as we reported yesterday, fear that Tory reforms to Whitehall have gone too far, debilitating the machine.

Meanwhile, important relationships remain deliberately shrouded. Column inches are expended on speculation about who might succeed Sir Robin Butler as head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary, but nobody bothers to ask with whom Sir Robin has a contract of employment, indeed whether he has one at all, let alone what are the performance criteria that might, say, win him a bonus. In other words, for all the effort expended on managerial reform inside central government over recent years, the higher Civil Service has largely gone unexamined and so unchanged.

Whoever wins the election, they will on 2 May inherit a Whitehall machine that is part-reformed and so only part-modernised. Aspects of its work remain mysterious - that word is apposite in a constitutional set-up that obfuscates the sources and exercise of power as a matter of course.

But the system works. By and large, policies get implemented. Efficiency has, in some areas, demonstrably increased. The Conservatives deserve credit for having asked sharp questions about operations. Why, asked Michael Heseltine as long ago as 1980, do we not know what departmental officials do, let alone how much they cost? The Financial Management Initiative of the early Eighties provided some answers. Why, asked a White Paper in 1988, is Whitehall management so amateur? The establishment of executive agencies to administer passports and licences began to supply a remedy. But the Conservatives funked equally pressing questions, to do with the architecture of Whitehall: why do we have all these departments pursuing such anachronistic purposes? The debacle in the running of prisons was not principally Michael Howard's fault; it was the fault of a Cabinet that refused to address the problem of professional service management under amateur ministers.

On winning, Labour would thus inherit a machine, some of whose parts are running better than ever, but one that has managed to duck big questions about power and responsibility. Signs are that Labour has done little thinking in detail about where it wants to take reform. Instead, as power has beckoned, we have seen the hoariest of left-of-centre anxieties getting trotted out. Like the one about the mandarin embrace. It is as if Tony Benn were still politically alive, and permanent secretaries were a kind of fifth column out to seduce Labour ministers away from the true socialist faith.

The gist of the advice tendered to would-be Labour ministers yesterday in a Fabian pamphlet by Peter Hennessy was: "Shape up and tell the civil servants what to do, firmly, and they will." Such schooling is welcome, if only to dispel any lingering nonsense about the higher Civil Service having been corrupted by serving the Tories for all these long years. Labour has more to worry about in the intellectual bankruptcy of senior officials than from their loyal service to the Tories - in certain policy areas, such as Europe, jobs and social policy, Whitehall has become a desert of knowledge and ideas. But the main point is that a clear distinction needs to be made between civil servants as partisans of the party in office and the fact that civil servants draw their identity from obliging the present holders of power - ministers. The Scott report on arms to Iraq, and the equally informative if tendentious memoir by Derek Lewis of his 1,000 days at the head of the Prison Service, tell of civil servants who are not employed to make moral or political distinctions. Their task is to sustain power, which for practical purposes means their ministers.

Whether this professional dedication is admirably directed is a different question from whether Labour ministers might benefit from it. They certainly could. If Labour wins the election, it can either utilise the machine as it is, or seek to reform it while simultaneously governing according to its new priorities.

Some reform will be forced on it willy-nilly. It is hard to see Labour's spending commitments being delivered by the Treasury as presently constituted, just as it is hard to see Tony Blair failing to balance his position against the Treasury by beefing up No 10. Similarly, Labour's commitment to devolution of power to Scotland and Wales will force Whitehall changes. But, beyond that? Does Labour plan to govern with civil servants whose culture and reflexes contributed, in those events and procedures so painstakingly described in the Scott report, to the amoralism which is now surfacing as "sleaze"?

Civil servants would prove as adept at the black arts under Labour as under the Tories. Labour, however, appears friendly toward the emerging formal code of Civil Service conduct, is thinking about incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights, is warm towards parliamentary reform and freedom of information. All those could weaken the old loyalty of civil servant and minister and, temporarily at least, leave Labour ministers less adept in the exercise of power.

It is a conundrum on which Mr Blair and his colleagues have spent little mental energy, mainly because they think it matters less than knowing what they want, and getting on with it. They ought to think more carefully, because if they are not sure what they want (and they aren't, entirely), Labour ministers may find that the inhabitants of Whitehall are less help than they hope.