Armageddon approaches

Observations on the congestion charge

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 that 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 it is principally the well-heeled who drive in central London, where car-parking costs up to £6 an 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.

The Mail on Sunday even managed to make a hoo-ha over the congestion charge headquarters being located outside the area, which means its staff will not have to pay the fiver.

The introduction of the charge has seen the flowering of previously unknown lobbies rather in the mould of Babies against the Bomb in CND's heyday. Z-list celebrities such as 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 London Evening Standard, have taken Livingstone, a battle-hardened former "vilest man in Britain", by surprise. An analysis of the Standard's coverage on behalf of the mayor concluded that it was an almost textbook case of the 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 charge could be seen as a miraculous cure for the chaos.

Yet it has not been the strength of the attacks that has been surprising, but Livingstone's muted response to them. His publicity surrounding the congestion charge has not tried to win over hearts and minds by stressing the environmental and transport benefits of the scheme; instead, it has been confined to a prosaic explanation of 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 from the technical aspects of the scheme.

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 he does not seem equipped to answer the political questions that undoubtedly will arise.

Johnson has deliberately eschewed the spin-doctor approach, arguing that it is impossible to try to make an issue like this popular and, ultimately, that it will be public opinion, not PR gimmicks, which will determine whether the scheme survives. She ruled out a high-profile campaign based on selling the congestion charge, 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."

Livingstone's independence from any party also hampers his ability to make a political response. Given that Labour ministers have deliberately sat on the fence so they will not be implicated should the scheme go awry, Livingstone remains its sole political mouthpiece.

Livingstone argues that, ultimately, the success or failure of the congestion charge 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 of the scheme. It is a remarkable gamble for a media-savvy politician like Livingstone, especially as his political future rests on how the scheme is perceived by the time of the mayoral election in May next year.

Christian Wolmar's book Down the Tube: the battle for London's Underground has just been published by Aurum Press (£9.99)