Ken Livingstone’s task in selling the congestion charge to the London public makes Herod’s propaganda efforts on culling the first born look simple. The media onslaught for what is a pretty modest concept that will directly affect fewer than 1 per cent of the nation’s population is quite extraordinary. As congestion charging day, 17 February approaches, national newspapers and local TV stations are running countdowns with daily features which portray its introduction as if Armageddon were arriving.
Controversy was inevitable. People hate new taxes. And this one appears regressive as everyone will pay the same £5 charge, although, in fact, it is principally the well-heeled who drive in central London where car parking costs up to £6 per hour.
The more extreme members of the motoring lobby present the charge as an attack on the fundamental human right of freedom of movement, a frequent theme on the sod-u-ken website expressed by people who clearly have found ways of evading petrol taxes and train fares. The Mail on Sunday even managed to make a hoo-ha over the fact that the congestion charge headquarters is located outside the area.which means its staff will not have to pay the fiver.
The hostility has already led to concessions during the consultation process. For example, the period covered by the charge was reduced by half an hour so that instead of the easy to remember 7 to 7, it runs only to 6 30. This was done to appease the theatre owners even though only a tiny proportion of theatregoes travel there by car. Indeed, the introduction of the charge has seen the flowering of previiously unknown lobbies rather in the mould of Babies against the Bomb in CND’s heyday. Z-list celebrities like Samantha Bond have suddenly sprung up as experts on London’s transport problems.
While much of this was to be expected, the ferocity and dishonest nature of the attacks, particularly in the Evening Standard have taken Livingstsone by surprise even though he is a battle hardened former ‘‘vilest man in Britain’. An analysis of the Standard’s coverage on behalf of the mayor concluded that it was ‘an almost textbook case of the creation and establishment of a media ‘truth’, notably the assertion, for which there was no evidence, that Livingstone had deliberately made congestion worse last year so that the new charge could be seen as a miraculous cure for the chaos.
Yet, it has not been the strength of the attacks which has been surprising but Livingstone’s muted response to them. The publicity surrounding the congestion charge has not attempted to win over hearts and minds by stressing the environmental and transport benefits of the scheme, but has been confined to a prosaic explanation of how the mechanics of the process. This has been deliberate. The mayor and his press chief, Joy Johnson, a former Labour Party communications director, argue that it is essential to separate the political and technical aspects of the scheme.
They argue that the political decision was taken a long time ago and therefore the key to the success of the policy is to ensure its smooth introduction. The problem with this strategy is that it has left Livingstone’s affable but rather lugubrious roads boss, Derek Turner, as the media front man for the scheme and obviously he is not equipped to answer the political questions that undoubtedly arise.
Johnson has deliberately eschewed the spin doctor approach, arguing that it is impossible to try to make an issue like this popular and that ultimately it will be public opinion, not PR gimmicks which will determine whether the scheme survives or is hounded out by the electorate’s hostility, as happened to the poll tax. She ruled out a high profile public campaign based on selling the congestion charging arguing that it would be counter-productive. As Livingstone put it in an interview in PR Week, ‘If I produce a bucket of pigeon shit and pour it over your head, then spend several thousand pounds on PR to explain to you that it is wonderful, I’m not going to persuade you. It’s a waste of time to have a campaign that tries to convince people black is white.’
Livingstone has also been hampered in his ability to make a political response by the fact that, having stood as an independent, he has no political party behind him. Given that Labour ministers have deliberately sat on the fence so that they will not be implicated should the scheme go awry, Livingstone is the sole political mouthpiece and the task is simply too much for one man.
Livingstone argues that ultimately the success or failure of the congestion charging will be obvious to those living in the capital. In other words, he is putting his trust in the common sense of his fellow Londoners and their ability to ignore the huge media machine harnessed by opponents the scheme. It is a remarkable gamble for a media savvy politician like Livingstone, especially as his political future undoubtedly rests on how the scheme is perceived by the time of the mayoral election in May next year.