LEADING ARTICLE : Receiving you muffled and unclear, Mr Blair

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The Independent Online
Sir Humphrey Appleby, Mr Justice Cocklecarrot and Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Harding are all lumped together, for the purposes of pay, as Top People. Their jobs are as different as can be but they sort of fit together in the public imagination. There, for all the lurid tales told about the death of deference and the end of authority, high public officials continue to be esteemed. But not so much that the public is going to think depriving them of a 5 per cent pay rise (worth pounds 4,500 a year for someone on pounds 90,000) is the height of injustice. Gordon Brown, for all his lugubrious air, is light on his feet: making an example of Top People's pay will prove tactically adept. It does, as they say, send a signal. More than one, in fact. It waves to lower-paid public servants, nurses included, whose 1997 pay rise may not be paid in full. It is also a cheery and - if one is permitted such an anachronistic word these days - fraternal gesture in a leftwards direction, towards party colleagues still smarting over his commitment not to raise income tax rates for the higher-paid.

Good electoral politics, then, which once more leaves the Conservatives floundering - John Major's reply yesterday was poor stuff, accusing Labour of adopting positions because of their public relations value (Shame! Shame!) Yet, not for the first time, Labour's accomplished playing of the electoral game raises questions about the party's capacity to switch sides when and if it finds itself taking power. This is, to coin a phrase, a game of two halves. In the second period the party's leaders will be responsible for the effective running of those public services, those courts, that army and that navy. Then they will realise that you can certainly depress the pay of under-secretaries and alter the balance between what judges get on the bench and what lawyers get at the Bar. Nothing dramatic happens at first, but gradually the quality and efficiency of those services declines and there will be no Tory government to kick around any more.

Still, Gordon Brown made his pronouncements on pay with some masterly touches. A light allusion here to the Dunkirk Spirit ( Harold Wilson in sundry hours of need), a glancing evocation there of the politics of envy. And was Tony Blair listening to his shadow Chancellor's talk of "fairness" and "sacrifice" for all the world as if he were addressing an conference in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in the 1970s? More likely he was perspiring a little at the shades of Old Labourism.

Still, Mr Blair's momentary sweat might have led him to consider some of his own recent political signalling. To treat Colonel Blimp and other readers of The Daily Telegraph to a breathless encomium to Britain's armed forces, as he did the other day, might look like a tactical foray into enemy territory. Unfortunately, though, it may prove to sit uneasily with a party leader who is very likely, in the near future, to need to take some hard decisions that will drastically re-organise our armed forces, and save large sums of money for spending on more urgent purposes.

Another telling omission in the thoughts of Labour's leader was apparent this week in his discussion of the future for London's transport. A word beginning with "p" seemed on the tip of his tongue more than once. It emerged as private sector partnership. He tried again with private finance but still could not quite utter the word for which he was clearly struggling. The word is privatisation.

Privatisation. It's not so hard to say. Why should New Labour have any problem uttering it? No one claims privatisation would remove the need for short-run revenue subsidy for London Underground. Even Sir George Young admits that a huge backlog of essential maintenance needs to be subtracted from the notional proceeds of a sale. None the less, among the ways forward for a network on which the life of the capital depends is the substitution of private management and ownership for public within a framework of regulation and subsidy. And yet Mr Blair could not quite spit it out.

It was more of a pity, because surely the future of London Underground is intimately bound up with Labour's pledge to effective government for the London conurbation; Labour's recognition, in clear distinction from the Conservatives, that the government of London has to have some measure of direct democracy, whether in the shape of a directly elected "mayor" or otherwise. Labour says it wants a strategic authority; well, not a mini-GLC, we hope, nor a bunch of the same tired nominees from boroughs. What London needs is a strategic executive, politically led, not an authority, bureaucratically bemused. And we need to know if this executive gets any money to spend.

For London's sake it will have to tax and spend, as well as co-ordinate and regulate across and under the built-up area. Much depends on the shape privatisation takes. But a great advantage for a private sector Underground, under contract to an elected London Government, would be its freedom to borrow on the capital markets. It would need to, for a massive task of investment lies ahead. Its incentive would be a set of London Government guarantees on revenue, backed by new pan-London planning powers for road, rail and other forms of transport and a direct contribution by London business and domestic residents to pay for their infrastructure - a city tax, to be explicit.

The gratifying thing about the election campaign so far is that we are learning something new every day. The troubling thing is, we are not yet getting all the important signals loud and clear.