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

by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2014

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 Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.