Vince Cable nails Labour’s crass and inaccurate attacks on Lib Dems’ support for the minimum wage

Sometimes you’ll hear Labour folk claim, with absolute certainty, that the Lib Dems opposed the introduction of the minimum wage in 1998. They’re wrong, as a glance at the voting record shows not a single Lib Dem MP voted against and 26 voted in favour.

Today Labour’s shadow secretary of state for Work and Pensions, Rachel Reeves, upped the ante, demanding to know:

where was the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable)? He was nowhere to be seen in the debates. He was nowhere to be seen on the voting record. On Second Reading and Third Reading, he failed to vote. Apparently, he abstained because he had reservations about a minimum wage. Perhaps he will stand up today to profess his concern for the plight of the low-paid.

Vince didn’t respond directly immediately. But he did respond:

Vince Cable:
The hon. Member for Leeds West [Rachel Reeves] made a great deal of the fact that, as she put it, the Conservatives opposed the national minimum wage and many Liberal Democrats opposed it. She speaks with all the self-confidence of somebody who was not here at the time.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab):
You were and you didn’t vote.

Vince Cable:
I did not particularly wish to raise this, but I am being asked personally to explain why I did not vote. It had a lot to do with the fact that my late wife was terminally ill at the time and I was in the Royal Marsden hospital. That is why my voting record at the time was poor on that and other issues.

As it happens, my party supported the national minimum wage; nobody opposed it. I became the party’s spokesman shortly after the vote and I made it absolutely clear throughout that Parliament that we supported the principle of the national minimum wage. There was never any question about that.

Perfectly legitimate issues were raised about why there was no regional variation. There is a proper debate to be had about whether there should be a regional or a national minimum wage. As it happens, I endorsed the principle of the national minimum wage. However, there is a perfectly respectable argument for regional variation. As I understand it, the Labour party now promotes the living wage, at the heart of which is the idea that there should be regional differentials, with people in London being paid more and people in the west country or the north of England being paid relatively less. There is an argument for that. Why criticise people who have put forward that idea in good faith?

Update (10pm): as this post has gotten a lot of attention, I just want to make one thing clear. I’m sure neither Rachel Reeves nor Chris Bryant nor the @LabourWhips Twitter account were aware of the circumstances behind Vince Cable’s absence from the minimum wage vote in 1998. They should probably have done a bit more research before making such a big deal of it, but mistakes – even crassly unfortunate ones like this – do happen. What I don’t understand is why none of them has (yet) made anything approaching a sincere public apology once they realised the facts.

Further update (11am, 16th Jan): Rachel Reeves has now issued an apology to Vince and sent him a note. The right thing to do.

And Chris Bryant has followed suit:

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Apparently there is now a researcher post available for Ms Reeves….. The previous incumbent seems to have misunderstood the flow from data to information and finally knowledge ..
    Check facts before attacking people in future, and I would hope (but sadly not expect) some apologies are made…

  • Cllr Mark Wright 15th Jan '14 - 8:15pm

    Labour has spent the last decade lying about Lib Dem support for the minimum wage. It’s a fruitful line of deceit for them and they wont stop any time soon.

  • I’ve just looked at Hansard. The report is exactly right . Wonder if they have enough character to apologise?

  • Until we get to a political culture where it is considered shameful and indecent to take cheap shots, and the leadership of all the major parties go out of their way to censure MPs who do so, this kind of thing will go on. In fact, I rather think that the low blow, the out of context quote, and the distortion of the record are considered praiseworthy — and not just in the Labour Party.

  • Gwyn Williams 15th Jan '14 - 10:47pm

    Honourable members?

  • After reading that one can come to no other conclusion that that Vince is a truly class act.

  • Paul In Twickenham 15th Jan '14 - 11:04pm

    When you mess up so badly the obvious solution is to put your hands up, say “we made a ghastly mistake and unreservedly apologize” and move on. If Labour’s whips are so full of bile and bull as to tweet an egregious non-apology apology then that says a lot about them.

  • Good to see Labour still have that fine eye for detail that screwed the economy so effectively

  • Paul Pettinger 16th Jan '14 - 12:09am

    I thought we had to trash Vince Cable now – the greatest states-person the Party has. Confused.

  • I watched the major speeches and later contributions. Vince was masterful. Rachel Reeves acted as a conduit for ‘horny handed sons/daughters of toil’ to intervene self righteously at regular intervals. Vince’s calm response had an amazing calming effect and virtually all Labour interventions were respectful.
    Nick is simply not in his class -sorry!

  • Meral Hussein Ece 16th Jan '14 - 8:44am

    Chris Bryant MP has a track record of personal attacks. I’ve known him since we were both councillors in Hackney in the 90’s. Having spent a week with him on a recent Parliamentary delegation, I can confirm he reserves his vitriol for Lib Dems, while reaching new depths of obsequiousness for Tories. Perhaps as a former Tory he has more in common with them.

  • Harriet Harman did have the grace to apologise to Danny Alexander for calling him a ginger rodent, and surely Rachel Reeves and her colleagues can manage to apologise to Vince likewise.

  • Labour certainly have chosen the wrong target within the Lib Dems to attack, and bearing in mind the personal and family tragedy Vince was going through at that time, it would be the honourable thing to do to apologise. But for Lib Dems here and in other places to try to rewrite history to say there was no opposition to the concept or practice of a Minimum Wage is disingenuous. Someone else with the voting records and contemporary statements at their fingertips will tell us how the then Lib Dem Parl Party were whipped for this vote, but it is clear from the figures above (26 in favour) that almost half the party then either abstained or were absent. Debate at Conference and throughout the party at the time had led us to propose Regional variants of MW, outright opposition in some circles etc.

  • Michael Parsons 16th Jan '14 - 12:02pm


    Sad if true. Anyway if you want to attack “Vince” ask about Royal Mail pricing and the disgraceful sell-off of national assets, foot-dragging on separation of retail banking and failre to bring criminal prosecutions against bankers and their ilk, I suggest..

  • They have apologised. Well done them, let’s move on.

  • Whilst Rachel Reeves is apologising I wonder if she would like to apologise for a few other things. —-

    Reeves worked as an economist at the Bank of England and British Embassy in Washington, D.C. between 2000 and 2006.

    Between 2006 and July 2009, she worked as a business planner and analyst for Halifax Bank of Scotland (now part of Lloyds Banking Group).

    She was selected by the Labour Party to contest the seat from an all-women shortlist imposed by Labour head office.

    Reeves wrote the new edition of Why Vote Labour?.

    Reeves has been named by The Guardian newspaper as being one of several MPs who employ unpaid interns,.
    The Independent newspaper has named Reeves as a member of a group of new Labour MPs known as the “Nando’s Five”. The other members are Chuka Umunna MP, Luciana Berger MP, Jonathan Reynolds MP and Emma Reynolds

    She is a supporter of Israel.

  • Richard Wingfield 16th Jan '14 - 1:15pm

    We called for a minimum wage in our manifesto in 1997, albeit set a regional level. Whilst the Lib Dems may not have supported it as enthusiastically as the Labour party, well over half our parliamentary party voted in favour of the legislation, and have continued to support it since it came into force. Rachel should pick her battles a little more carefully I think.

    As for Chris Bryant, thinking before heckling has never been a strong point. In any event, given that he opposed same-sex marriage at the time of the Civil Partnership Act and has changed his mind on the issue, one would think he’d be a little more tolerant towards those who have (or who may have) reversed their positions on policy issues. I shan’t hold my breath though.

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