MP expenses: How I remember it

Issue section: 

Valerie Wise was a political assistant to her mother, left wing Labour MP Audrey Wise, on two occasions between 1977 and 1979 and between 1987 and 2000. She talked to Socialist Review about how MPs' expenses were dealt with in these periods.

When Audrey was first elected in 1974 she had to stay with friends and comrades in London. She then moved into a relatively cheap hotel, but it wasn't easy living out of a suitcase all the time. Eventually she got a small flat that she rented. She paid for this out of the small allowance that MPs got at the time.

I first started working as her political assistant in 1977. I worked out of her rented flat because she didn't have an office. We had an old typewriter and a Gestetner printer in the front room. There was little office support and - especially on the left of the Labour Party - no culture of claiming expenses for food, homes, mortgages or furnishings.

Of course, MPs were well paid compared to most workers, but unlike many Tories, Labour MPs didn't have other jobs in London, so there wasn't a huge gap between the Labour MPs and those they represented. Those on the left were MPs not for the money, but because they believed in a better world and wanted to represent working class communities in parliament.

Audrey lost her seat in Coventry at the election in 1979. She was re-elected to represent Preston in 1987. We immediately noticed a change. There was now an "additional costs allowance" which was to cover the costs that MPs incurred when they had to stay away from their home. For an MP from out of London this was important.

My parents weren't wealthy, they were an ordinary working class couple, so the additional allowance was not illegitimate. It allowed working people to become MPs. But in any case you had to have a receipt for everything. And you weren't allowed to claim for home furnishings or food or the vast range of things MPs are claiming for today.

At the end of the day I suppose you expect the Tories to be on the make - but the really sad thing is the extent to which this has spread through the Labour Party. For MPs like Audrey there was a moral aspect to their politics - and sticking your nose in an expenses trough was something that left wing Labour MPs just wouldn't have contemplated.