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Labour’s minimum wage attack flops

16 January 2014

Labour’s minimum wage debate in the Commons last night was designed mainly to humiliate the Conservatives about their past opposition to it and to remind voters that only the Labour party cares about those on low wages. But it failed on two counts. The first was that Rachel Reeves fell into the easy trap of accusing someone of missing a vote without double-checking whether this had been for a good reason (all the more surprising given the party’s recent rage over a Sun article describing Lucy Powell as ‘lazy’ when she had in fact been away on maternity leave). She laid into Vince Cable for failing to vote on Labour’s introduction of the minimum wage, saying:

‘I have quoted the former leader of the Liberal Democrats but, back then, 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. I am happy to take an intervention from the right hon. Gentleman if he wants to make one.’

When Cable responded to the motion, he explained where he was, and it made uncomfortable listening for the Labour front bench:

‘The hon. Member for Leeds West 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: ‘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.’


Later Labour’s Ian Murray accepted that perhaps the party had been unkind to the Business Secretary, and Rachel Reeves has just tweeted that she has written to Cable to apologise. Chris Bryant has also apologised in the past few minutes. It’s not the first time someone has made the mistake of assuming that non-attendance at a vote has a sinister rather than sad explanation, but it rather blunted Labour’s attack on the Lib Dems at least. Unusually, it also meant Vince Cable was left defending the Conservatives, and he did so in an unusually gracious way:

‘As for the Conservatives, although I do not always speak in their defence, I think that they should get credit for accepting that there is a good system that works and for deciding to support it. That is creditable. Although I and my party have supported the national minimum wage, there is a perfectly respectable intellectual and moral argument for not having a minimum wage. Countries that do not have a minimum wage include Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Austria. Those countries are all in the social democratic tradition, but have felt that it is too problematic. Germany, which has had either social democratic or national unity Governments for most of the post-war period, has adopted a national minimum wage only in the last few weeks. In those countries, where there are civilised values and a sense of solidarity, the costs and benefits of the minimum wage have been debated properly. Why should we criticise people in this country who wanted to have such a debate, but who have now come to a consensus that it is a good system and that we should make it work?’

Reeves’ attack on the Tories had already sounded a little odd, because she had chosen to list the many senior Conservatives, including David Cameron, who opposed and made dire predictions about the minimum wage. This would have made more sense a few weeks ago before the Conservatives started making loud noises about possibly supporting a raise in the minimum wage, and before many Tories on the Right of the party started saying publicly that they had been wrong to oppose Labour’s introduction. The debate itself saw the most loyal Tory MPs such as Charlie Elphicke, who will never step out of line, saying they supported an increase, which gives us as much a clue as anything as to where the Conservatives now stand.

One of the most powerful moments in a Gordon Brown speech was in his 2009 conference address when he listed Labour’s achievements. As part of the list, the Labour PM growled ‘the minimum wage’, and as he did, the conference hall went wild. The Conservatives have now realised the purchase that this policy had on voters’ perceptions of parties, just as they celebrate the purchase that the right-to-buy had when Margaret Thatcher introduced it. Contrition is a rare thing in politics, and yah-booing down the first signs of a party accepting that it made a mistake is hardly the statesmanlike behaviour that Ed Miliband is apparently such a fan of.

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  • James Allen

    How about a MAXIMUM wage in the public sector? I would set it at the PM’s salary. I am fed up to the back teeth with council chiefs, Network Rail bureaucrats and other public officials taking home hundreds of thousands of pounds each year for form-filling, pencil-pushing, ear-bending tosh… most of the time they get the job because they know the right people…. DISGUSTING…

  • Blank Reg

    Why is Reeves’ husband Nick Joicey allowed to be a director of DEFRA? Surely that is a conflict of interest, and a violation of civil service neutrality?

  • Colonel Mustard

    Be careful folks or the Wicked Witch of the Left will set her flying pigs on you.

  • Magnolia

    It is common knowledge that Mr Cable lost his first wife.
    He has talked on TV about their happiness together many times and he has also mentioned that she was Asian.
    He has also talked about his happiness from his second marriage.
    He has been very open and free speaking about it all and only a tunnel visioned, thick skinned person would lack the ability to second guess why he had had a spell missing voting.
    Mr Cable’s obvious pleasure from his family life and the open way that he talks about them is one of the very few things about him that I admire.

  • Rockin Ron

    Poor excuse from Cable, so what his wife was ill, that doesn’t mean he can abdicate his responsibilities. Reeves should have pressed him more on this point. What this shows is too many MPs assume being an MP is a part time job that they can pick up and lay down as they want. That is one reason so many of them have second or third jobs. Parliament too touchy feely these days. As Cable’s wife was ill he could have contacted his pair so that the tellers would include him in their count.

    • LadyDingDong

      Much as I avoid responding to idiotic comments, yours is so egregiously bad I feel I have no choice. I am no fan of Cable but no man should put his work duties before the care of a much-loved partner. Please crawl back under the rock from which you came you disgusting specimen.

      • Rockin Ron

        My point was a simple one – Cable did not even have to be in Parliament to register his vote. He did not make the necessary arrangements for this to happen.

    • Paddy

      And what about Rachel Reeves having so much time off for giving birth?

      • Blank Reg

        Ah, but you see she is allowed to do that because she is a WOMAN. If you criticise that you are SEXIST.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Not a good post. I am sure you now regret it.

  • an ex-tory voter

    It is pure hypocrisy to propose, or support, a minimum wage, at the same time as advocating, encouraging, or allowing, mass immigration of un-skilled workers.
    I say “a plague on all three of your houses”.

  • HookesLaw

    Cables defence of the tories is a sound one and it vividly exposes the rancid bigotry behind most Labour attacks on the tories. Its often repeated on here where its all to easy for numpties with no argument to dismiss a tory policy because its all because they want to help their ‘friends in the city or big business’ or pals in the EU.

    The problem with the minimum wage – which might be quite harmless but still helpful if set at a suitable level – is that as soon as you have one then campaigners then switch to saying it should be higher. To date although I was in principle opposed to the minimum wage there seems little indication that it is harming employemnt since we have record numbers in work. As it is the minimum wage has hardly encouraged people out of benefits into work.

  • HJ777

    I have to say that Vince Cable has gone right up in my estimation for pointing out that even though he disagreed with the Conservative stance on this subject that he defended their intellectual and moral case over the issue.

    A refreshing change from the all-too-common tactic these days of trying to close down the debate by vilifying opponents rather than discussing the case they put.

    • HookesLaw

      Ealy in the coalition I thought Cable was good at defending it. He then seemed to go more on walkabout.

  • Geronimo von Huxley

    It baffles me and many others why the debate about a minimum wage had any merit whatsoever when it is obvious that that system, even when in place, requires large sums of added support to work for the punters in question.
    The issue here is why the living wage is not the legislated minimum, minimising the cost for all rather than being a benefit for the a few select employers and landlords.

    • Alexsandr

      have you considered the effect on this on employment levels? Wont it just export jobs elsewhere?
      I say better in work on a low wage than on the dole. And once in work, its easier to get another job.

      • Geronimo von Huxley

        Yes, but Fraser and his panel guest explained elsewhere how some concerns today take advantage of splitting jobs to minimise their exposure which in return maximises the exposure of the taxpayer to support the bottom end.

        If we are discussing and agreeing that ‘cuts’ were required, then of course those cuts also ought to apply to housing benefits paid. But we cannot do that as house prices and its financing is rising at ever-increasing rates.
        So what we end up with here is an increase of benefits paid to those who ought not require our ‘support’ – the support of speculative landlords.

    • HJ777

      The “living wage” is a nonsense. “Living” for whom?

      A single man living with his parents in Hull, or someone who has a family to support in London? They require quite different incomes to sustain an acceptable standard of living.

      And do people advocating the “living wage” also advocate not taxing people who earn less than that amount? What is the justification for taxing someone before they even have enough to live on?

  • Shinsei1967

    As with many issues it is one of balance. I suspect most Tories who opposed the NMW back in 1997 did so because they feared it would be set too high and thus cost jobs (especially for the young & unskilled).

    As the low pay commission that sets (or rather recommends the level) the NMW has been shown to be “sensible” then the critics have accepted a minimum wage.

    Labour seem to want to refight the battles of almost twenty years ago. One assumes because they don’t have any strong current arguments.

    • Count Dooku

      The NMW should be abolished. As predicted at the time, it would cause unemployment. It has, but only for the young and unskilled who don’t vote.
      If you want to know why youth unemployment is at 20%, look no further than the NMW. All the countries without NMW Cable mentioned have their youth unemployment at or very close to the national level.

  • glassfet

    “Rachel Reeves has just tweeted that she has written to Cable to apologise”

    but declined to apologise on the floor of the House and get it in Hansard.


    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      Well she does represent Labour the party of lies, lying and liars. The minimum wage is deemed a good thing but is obviously worthy of debate. The Labour suggestion that it is a flawless policy is ridiculous. If that were the case why not make it £1,000 an hour and then nobody would be poor. That is of course, a ridiculous proposition and why it has to be set at a tolerable level for the enterprises forced to pay it. Labour did not end boom and bust and thus a system where wages are allowed to fluctuate to reflect economic conditions is probably better and will protect jobs. That said, a reasonable minimum wage appears to be part of our social fabric and is probably here to stay. Last night’s debacle was typical of the sanctimonious motives of the Labour Party and self-important harridans like the ludicrous Reeves.

      • HJ777

        You mean Gordon Brown didn’t abolish “boom and bust” as he promised? You can’t be right because otherwise he would surely have admitted by now that he was wrong, wouldn’t he?

    • HookesLaw

      Well you are right. It shows a strange (and in this case cowardly) mindset when you can bad-mouth someone in public and then simply ‘tweet’ an apology to a few hundred sycophantic ‘followers’ .
      I assume in that particular case, given the massive labour majority, there was no much thought given to ‘pairing’.

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