View from the top: Ken Livingstone

Mayor Livingstone tells Gidon Freeman about his PR gamble with congestion charging

Despite the bluster, the gritty public image and the evident contempt he has for the secret machinations of New Labour spin doctors, Ken Livingstone is a deeply message-conscious politician. His staff say the only demand he made when the Greater London Authority relocated to the spanking new City Hall earlier this year was that his office should look east towards the poorer parts of the capital.

He had no interest in facing the Westminster village that had provided the platform for a 25-year political career, and a clear intention to both physically and symbolically turn his back on the image-obsessed national political scene.

It is a curious move, but not a wholly convincing one. Apart from anything else, the view over Tower Bridge and across to the City is far more dramatic than the murky Thames winding its way towards SW1.

Last month saw Livingstone and the GLA embark on a massive public information campaign on the issue of congestion charging. The charge comes into force next February and will see all non-exempt drivers paying £5 if they wish to enter the charging zone between 7am and 6.30pm on a week day. With an ad spend of close to £13m and a media relations operation fully geared to winning Londoners over to the benefits of the charge, Livingstone does care what we think of him, and consequently his policy.

He is fond of telling a story about his visit to a mayors' convention in the US two years ago, in which his fellow mayors expressed incredulity that he was set to force through charges for driving in a city as keen on the motorcar as London. The consensus was that they would wait to see whether Livingstone got himself re-elected before following his lead.

'Public opinion is absolutely decisive for the congestion charge,' he says. 'In the same way that Thatcher ignored public opinion about the Poll Tax until it was too late, the change you are asking people to make is so substantial that you have to have consent - if not majority support - against such a determined minority.'

That determined minority includes most of the 33 London boroughs, the major motoring and civil rights organisations, and the Tory opposition.

It also includes sections of the London media, and in particular an increasingly sceptical Evening Standard. Livingstone plays down the impact of negative editorial coverage, but it clearly riles him that papers such as the Standard have such an ability to influence opinion with no responsibility to exercise: 'Whatever the media says will be ignored by the public if it is contrary to people's personal experiences. If charging turns out to be a success it won't matter what the papers say about it.'

Despite this dismissive attitude, Livingstone has picked up a greater understanding of PR than he had in the past. Among the criticisms levelled at him after he addressed the IPR Greater London Group earlier this year,was the claim that he did not know the difference between PR and advertising - at that time he used the terms interchangeably, describing paid-for space as PR and praising his press team for their great work in 'advertising him'.

He now seems to have moved beyond that, to a more subtle grasp of the communications challenge ahead: 'A key problem is that this issue was initially covered by political correspondents and then some time last year it seemed to be handed to motoring journalists. I think they have a full understanding of the issues but they have to tell their readers what they want to hear.'

Whichever journalists cover the issue, the stark fact is that Livingstone has invested so much personal capital in the project that he stands to lose in a big way if it goes belly up. On this point he is frank: 'A scheme can work technically, but still prove very unpopular and I accept that I have staked my reputation on it being a success.'

As a campaign, the public information drive for charging has included billboard advertising, leafleting to relevant groups and mailshots to those with the possibility of exemption to show them how to make their claim. With £12.7m on advertising, the campaign's cheapest element by far has been the PR operation, run from within the GLA by the press team overseen by former Labour communications director Joy Johnson. The cost covers tens of thousands of information packs sent to disabled badge holders, fleet managers, central zone residents and so on - all of whom are to some degree exempt from the charge.

The details of the charge are complex enough for Livingstone to have ruled out using PR to communicate them: 'The campaign is to explain why it is happening, how to get your exemption, who to phone and all that.

That sort of stuff can't be done by public relations - you've just got to buy the space. But then I wouldn't waste my own money trying to convince people charging is a good idea - it's about to happen and they'll soon know for themselves whether it's good or not.'

Some would say this tactic has gone so far as to ignore the basic principles of managing public expectations. But he is scathing about the suggestion that deft communications can reduce the negative impact of the charge.

He says: '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.'

Despite the gamble that the congestion charge represents to the mayor's career, he seems relaxed about his re-election prospects. He believes he has in his favour the fact that likely opponents are all tied up in knots about the charging issue: 'Every opinion poll since two weeks before the last election has shown this is a struggle between me and Steve Norris. And although Steve, I suspect, privately thinks you have to have charging, he'll never win the Tory nomination unless he comes out against. In that sense, Norris is the ideal candidate because he will go into the election saying something his heart doesn't believe in. He will never be able to argue with the real conviction that hard-line Tory candidates will.'

He is amused by suggestions that the Tory tag might prove as much a handicap as a benefit and that Norris may decide to run as an independent, or 'do a Ken'.

'I will wait to see that happen. The advantage of being a party candidate is that there is an organisation behind you, and money. I had two-and-half years of stupidity from the Labour PR machine, which created so much anger that, when I announced I'd run alone, the money came in in about ten days. That won't happen this time, and I know Norris is well-off, but I'm not sure he's that well off.'

When the re-election campaign gets going in early 2004, the congestion charge will have had a good year to provoke plaudits or complaints. And having emphatically turned his back on his Westminster roots, Livingstone will be hoping it proves as much of a vote winner as he himself did last time around.

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