An Affront to Democracy, Imposed by a Dictator; Analysis

Article excerpt


IT started as a throwaway remark over lunch with a journalist. 'I'm going to be a one-woman campaign against the congestion charge,' I said, rather rashly. Before I knew it, my picture was in the papers, I had been swamped with letters of support and I knew there was no turning back.

I had never seen myself as a figurehead for anything, but the sheer unfairness of Ken Livingstone's charge had been bothering me for months. The more I complained about it to friends and colleagues, the more I noticed that almost everybody seemed to agree with me.

How could it be reasonable to expect Londoners, who already face the highest living costs in Britain, to pay a blanket pound sterling5 a day simply for using their cars? What about the teachers who have to carry bags full of homework? Or our hospital workers, firefighters, electricians and plumbers?

What about the thousands of poorly paid shift workers who face an unreliable and - for many women - frightening journey on public transport in the middle of the night?

I have always counted myself a great believer in democracy and have always been prepared to accept the will of the majority, even if I didn't necessarily agree myself. But the congestion charge has apparently been waved through 'on the nod', with no real public or political debate.

When the Mayor has almost dictatorial power to impose something as damaging and unpopular as this swingeing tax, I think it is time for democracy to be given a helping hand.

One of the few advantages of minor celebrity is the ability to get your voice heard on issues you care deeply about. It suddenly became clear to me that if I didn't put my head over the parapet, nobody else would.

I have always made it clear that I wasn't fighting the congestion charge for myself. I always use trains and the Tube in daytime and can afford the pound sterling5 a day when driving home, for safety reasons, from the West End at 11pm.

Initially my thought was for my low-paid theatre colleagues, particularly women. A year ago I was followed home on a train by two men who were clearly speaking about me in a language I couldn't understand. I was so terrified, even though it was only 5pm, that I had to phone my husband to ask him to meet me at the station. Most women in London have similar stories.

I also thought the charge would threaten the very existence of Theatreland.

The tax could prove one expense too many for theatregoers who cannot rely on a late-night train home to the suburbs and shires and already pay exorbitant prices to park their cars. …