Writing my autobiography this week has been repeatedly interrupted by interviews about the great expenses scandal. Like most of the public I have been amazed at some of the goings-on. Up until I left the House at the 2001 election, the big fiddle was MPs sharing a car home and then each claiming the mileage. At that time the additional costs allowance (ACA) was £10,000, which just covered the cost of a mortgage on a second home in London. And in my 14 years as an MP I never heard anyone use the word “flipping”.
The rot set in with the rebellion of July 2001 by Labour and Tory backbenchers. With the election safely out of the way and half of the House of Commons not present MPs agreed, against the advice of Robin Cook and the Tory front bench, to double the ACA. With £22,000 a year to play with, repairing tennis courts, cleaning moats or going into the property business suddenly became options. A caller on my LBC radio show asked if Labour MPs would be behaving like this if Blair hadn’t abolished Clause Four and ripped the moral core out of the party. I’ve no doubt things would be different if Labour MPs were still subject to full reselection in each parliament.
Given the state of the rail service, I head up to Nottingham on Monday night to ensure I’ll be on time to open the annual conference of Aslef, the train drivers’ union, on Tuesday morning. I speak about the financial crisis and climate change. Public investment in rail provides solutions to both problems, so they are happy to hear from me.
Back in London later in the day, I head to the Red Lion in Parliament Street for retirement drinks for Unison’s Rod Robertson. Rod ensured my mayoral administration kept in touch with the trade unions. Trade union gatherings are so different from gatherings of Labour MPs. Like the media, politics has become an all-graduate profession. At Jack Jones’s funeral on May Day, the mourners were overwhelmingly working-class people who hadn’t been to university. Every last one of them had given a lifetime of service to the working class and some, like Jack, had put their lives on the line in Spain. Jack’s approach to expenses was always tough, reminding union officials they were spending the members’ subscriptions.
On Wednesday I pop in to parliament for the Venezuela reception organised by Colin Burgon, to hear the ambassador give a rousing speech reminding us that socialism is an international movement. Economic and environmental problems can’t be solved by nations acting alone. In the 21st century, international sharing and redistribution are as important as domestic social justice.
Then on to the Eagle Gallery for the launch of Andy Beckett’s book When the Lights Went Out, a fantastic history of the 1970s. After 30 years of propaganda about how Britain became ungovernable because of trade union power, this book is a reminder that, in fact, we were badly governed. Beautifully written, it shows that Brits were among the happiest of people – not surprising, given that during the 1970s the working day was cut by 40 minutes, holiday entitlement went from an average of two to four weeks and women started to close the pay gap.
I was certainly happy. I was living on a councillor’s allowance of £2,000 at the time, but I remember life and people were nicer than they have been in the past decade.
At Brasenose College, Oxford, on Thursday, I give my stump speech again to the students: economic crisis and climate change. My old friend Vernon Bogdanor says the expenses row is a defining moment of the same order as the Profumo scandal in 1963. Then, the Establishment’s reputation was shredded, ending deference to our elders and betters and opening the way to the Swinging Sixties. Following Norman Tebbit’s call to vote for minor parties, today’s crisis could open the way to something much less pleasant.
My youngest children wanted a dog for Christmas, but they are not yet old enough to walk it and clean up after it, so instead we got a beautiful albino corn snake, called Zebedee. Friday night is their first chance to see the snake eating but I make the mistake of popping the mouse into the microwave to defrost it, filling the house with the revolting smell of burnt mouse.
Then the whole family gathers round the tank in silence as Zebedee stretches her jaws to engulf the mouse whole.
The children are agog.
On Saturday, the Jubilee Line is down again so it takes an extra half an hour to get down to the LBC studios in Leicester Square. The callers are even angrier than they were a week before. Tony Travers comes in to discuss work on the Crossrail project, which began this week. First proposed 40 years ago at a cost of £300m, it’s now a snip at just £16bn. Who says governments take too long to make decisions? l
Ken Livingstone is a recovering politician and hosts LBC’s Saturday morning show