You can’t mistake ideology – the way MPs talk, the way that they walk

With the unprecedented closeness and unpredictability of the next general election, there has been a lot of speculation about which parties may be able to do business together in the event of coalition negotiations, following another hung parliament. The SNP have ruled out the possibility of doing a deal with the Conservatives, but what other parties look like they may be able to do a deal based on the way that they vote? With potentially 10 or more seats in the next parliament, could the DUP act as kingmakers, or are they too far apart ideologically from either Labour or the Tories to realistically have a choice of coalition partners?

As suggested by Mick, I took an extract of voting data from the Public Whip, who have a fantastic database of how MPs and Lords vote on various issues. I then went through all 114 votes since the 2014 summer recess, and assigned an ideology score for each Aye or No vote. My scores are obviously and necessarily subjective, and can be found in a Google spreadsheet here. Even if you disagree with some of the scores on individual votes, they should offer a meaningful picture when aggregated together.

I have used the two-dimensional political ideology map, as invented by David Nolan and popularized by The Political Compass, which maps political belief in two dimensions. Free market beliefs are on the x-axis, with those on the right being those who believe in the principles of free markets, with socialist beliefs to the left. The y-axis represents authoritarian beliefs, with those advocating civil liberties at the bottom and people with a more authoritarian outlook at the top.

Traditionally political discourse runs from the top right quadrant to the bottom left. Consider Margaret Thatcher, who combined strong free market principles with a belief in a strong government presence in personal and moral matters. Socialists would tend to hold the opposite views, with a belief in government intervention in economic matters (e.g. a minimum wage), but non-intervention in personal matters. People in the top left quadrant would be authoritarian economic populists such as Robert Mugabe, and those in the bottom right would be libertarians, such as former US Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.

I looked at Northern Ireland MPs first. Obviously, as Sinn Féin do not take their seats at Westminster, it is not possible to compute a score for their MPs. The ideological position of the remaining Northern Ireland MPs can be found in the chart below.

NI Ideology

The three SDLP MPs and the Alliance MP Naomi Long are clustered closely together on the economic left and civil libertarian end of the spectrum. The independent Sylvia Hermon is slightly to the right and upwards of this cluster. However, there is a wide spectrum of ideological voting patterns amongst the DUP parliamentary party. With his votes on subjects such as the minimum wage, the bedroom tax, taxation and spending cuts, Nigel Dodds of the DUP is to the economic left of Mark Durkan based on the last six months of voting patterns. Other DUP MPs’ votes on issues such as healthcare and smoking put them towards the economic centre.

However, the origin of the graph (the point with 0 on both the x-axis and y-axis) is towards the top right of the Northern Ireland graph, which suggests that Northern Ireland MPs may skew to the left economically. To find out how Northern Ireland MPs compare to MPs from Great Britain, it is necessary to have a see where they sit on the overall spectrum of voting behaviour. The following chart shows the ideological voting scores of all MPs who have voted since September 2014.

UK Ideology

As you would expect, the Conservative party are clustered in the top right quadrant of the graph, and the Labour party are clustered in the bottom left. The Liberal Democrats, whilst obviously close to the Conservatives as they are in a coalition government together, have a clearly differentiated space in the ideological spectrum, being clearly to the economic left and the civil libertarian left of the Conservatives.

If you take the ideological spectrum as running from the bottom left to the top right, then it becomes apparent the implausibility of Plaid Cymru, the SNP or the Greens doing any sort of business with the Tories. Along with George Galloway of Respect, they sit clearly on Labour’s left flank. Interestingly the two UKIP MPs vote in a similar fashion to the Liberal Democrats, suggesting that they may not be as far apart on bread and butter domestic issues as they would both claim. Possibly the idea of a blue-orange-purple coalition is not as far-fetched as it seems.

In context with all UK MPs, it would appear that the DUP could indeed swing both ways in coalition negotiations. They have a centrist outlook economically, and indeed seem to be the only politicians in Westminster who sit in between the Labour and Conservative camps. Sylvia Hermon sits in a unique position on the political spectrum, sitting slightly to the right of Labour but massively to the left of the Conservatives; it is not hard to see why she did not see the UCU-NF experiment as being for her.

With UKIP firmly in the right-wing camp, and the SNP, PC, the SDLP, the Greens and the Alliance Party in the left leaning camp, the fact that the Lib Dems or the DUP could jump either way could give them power far larger than their number of MPs would suggest. When it comes to coalition building, with the magic numbers in front of me, you can’t mistake ideology.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy

  • Turgon

    A most interesting piece. Your analysis of the NI parties politicians is not the same as the political compass’s here but I think your is probably more accurate in terms of how the Ni parties actually behave.

    One criticism though is that your system does not account for the pretty aggressive whipping system in the House of Commons. This skews the position of MPs making the main parties Labour, Tories and LDs seem more homogeneous than they probably are. I suspect your system would work better in the likes of the US with much weaker party discipline.

    Still it was very interesting.

  • chrisjones2

    What a wonderful analysis. Well done. Fantastic and intriguing piece of work

    I have to say that your results for our local MPs on the economic axis doesn’t surprise me at all. Dodds has the problems of North Belfast to address and if politics is to be representative then thats what I would expect. Sylvia too is bang on in the centre and seeing Simpson out to the right as almost the only one the lot with any business experience, is no surprise. The whole group at the bottom left is also spot on – after all if its all free at the point of delivery why not vote for it – its money without responsibility

    I am less happy on the authoritarian axis. The definition of authoritarian is perhaps less well defined eg look at McDonnell’s recent positions – though those are in NI and not Westminster so he can easily face two ways at once. A social libertarian progressive in London alongside Labour and a hard Green Catholic Conservative at home while trying to out Green the Shinners. In strategy terms he could almost be a Shinner but on the Westminster / Belfast axis as opposed to Dublin/Belfast

    I am surprised however that Sammy is so high on the Y axis and McCrea so low

    The ideology scores table is interesting too. Just look at the chasm between blue and red

    If there is no room for a middle ground in London what hope is there for one here? The UK as a whole doesn’t do social democratic politics

    At the moment we are beguiled by 5 years of coalition but all those little yellow dots will soon evaporate and old patterns will assert themselves. Indeed they would already have done so if Labour and the Lib Dems had not deliberately torpedoed the long overdue boundary commission changes which would have wiped out a current 45 seat bias towards Labour.

    It may or may not be this year but the future is blue and our parties better start to accommodate themselves to that and its consequence for NI – especially in terms of finance. Personally I think that the Conservatives will win a majority (just) then implement the boundary changes and rebalance the impact of Scottish SNP votes on English issues. That is worth perhaps a stong 40 -60 seat majority for the next 15 to 20 years Labour will then collapse into infighting and be lost to power for at least a generation.

    That isn’t a good position for the UK as a whole as parties with a hegemony on power get lazy and drift from their base like Labour in Scotland and Wales (SF and DUP take note). But it is the reality

  • mjh

    Very instructive.

    Taking up Turgon’s point about aggressive whipping. This is always necessary to keep a governing party together. It is even more essential in the context of a coalition where the internal stresses will be greater. Clearly the DUP MP’s are not accustomed to following a strong whip – which must raise questions over their reliability as coalition partners.

    The DUP leadership has talked about doing a deal to support a minority government on a confidence and supply basis. But since this arrangement provides little incentive for the supporting party to stick with the arrangement when the governing party hits mid-term unpopularity – the DUP’s bargaining position could be very weak.

    This analysis also suggests that although the DUP could swing either way – its MP’s might be more comfortable – and therefore more reliable in the lobbies – in an arrangement with Labour.

  • Ian James Parsley

    Another great piece of data collection – but I would urge caution. The Opposition does tend to oppose (it’s the easy thing to do) so almost anyone in opposition will be diametrically opposed to anyone in government. Hence the bizarre notion that the DUP is actually more liberal than the Liberals…

    It would be interesting to see a similar analysis of 2005-10 for comparison.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    I agree with your point SOD about the Kippers I always had a gut feeling that they would be hanging in or around this political position. What is of most interest about the graph is were the SNP lie. Now the question is after all the blood and guts are spilled in Scotland and Labour get hurt, could there still be a chance of a Labour/SNP Coalition ? Could the DUP ever join such a coalition ?

  • chrisjones2

    But the DUP aren’t in opposition. They are nowhere but their traditional position of soft left because they can get votes by demanding more £ without having to take any hard decisions at Westminister

    SOrt of no power and no respoinsibility

  • Catcher in the Rye

    It’s less opposition, more of people who have no immediate prospect of having the power to put their ideas into practice.

    NI21, the Greens and to some extent the SDLP are exhibiting the same characteristics within the NI Assembly.

  • salmonofdata

    Of course it would have been better to have a longer sample period, but unfortunately the assigning of ideological positions based on individual votes is not possible to automate, and Aye vote and a No vote can mean either support or opposition for a policy even on a debate on the same bill. Analysis of the entire parliament would involve hand coding values for all 1,207 divisions in this parliament thus far, a process that would take several days.

    The Google spreadsheet I linked to describes each of the 114 divisions that were analysed in this post. There was a good cross section of topics debated, including taxation, energy prices, abortion, terrorism, foreign aid, Trident, and the NHS. I think that there is enough data to form a reasonable idea of where the parties are in relation to each other.

  • willie drennan

    Impressive research and analysis indeed, proving much relevance for upcoming general election. However,is the whole Left versus Right labeling perhaps becoming redundant?

    I find myself all over the place when I try to figure out if my politics are Left or Right and I would be loathed to be called a centrist. For instance, state control of essential services seems logical at first but with corruption within government as prevalent as it is within large corporations: what then becomes more important to the tax-payer is how best to have accountability and therefore get best value for money.

    On the issue of austerity measures where does Left and Right stand in the various political jurisdictions?

    It gets even more confusing when you look at issues of social consciousness and freedoms. For instance parties labeled Left and Right in Northern Ireland appear to sing from the same hymn sheet on the issue of abortion.

    Personally I think graphs and charts should be replaced with a circle. Well okay,maybe a series of concentric circles would be required.

  • salmonofdata

    The Lib Dem’s voting pattern is obviously going to be skewed by the fact that they form a coalition government with the Tories. To get an idea where the Lib Dems would be without the constraints of being in a Conservative-led coalition, look at the position of the other independent MP, Mike Hancock (the grey dot near the origin), who resigned from the Liberal Democrats in September 2014.

    Freed of the Lib Dem whip, his voting pattern places him in the centre, to the economic right and to the libertarian left of the DUP, if you think about the ideological axis running diagonally. I think that this is a fair representation about where the two parties sit in relation to each other.

  • salmonofdata

    Thanks. Certainly the y-axis is harder to quantify, I’ve had to mix issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, the EU, and the abortion debate, which means it is not quite as straightforward as economic left-right issues. I wouldn’t worry too much about differences between individual DUP MPs on the y-axis, as turnout plays a role here and it could be attributable to which MPs attended parliament on various days.

    The key takeaway, as you say, is that there is significant variation between members of the DUP on economic matters, and that they are further right on social issues than would be implied by their centre left-ish economic stance.

  • Reader

    I share Turgon’s concern about the effect of whipping, especially in a very tight parliament. So maybe abstentions and absences shouldn’t be ignored?
    Also, I had a quick look through the spreadsheet, and I can’t see why you assigned any social conservatism/authoritarian score to the shale, fracking, trident and windfarms votes – those should all be zero, shouldn’t they? Did you just assign values depending on which way Labour voted? That would be a bit of a circular definition!

  • chrisjones2

    The DUP could swing either way?

    What ARE you suggesting

  • Zeno

    My favourite definition of democracy is…………
    Every 5 years you get an opportunity to change the Suits.
    There is no real Left/Right spit. They are all the same,,,,,,,, useless.

  • tmitch57

    For the last two decades politics in the U.S. has been even more polarized than in the UK. So I suspect that the gap on the left-right axis would be just as wide if not wider than that between Labour and the Tories. And on the authoritarian axis as well. The main difference is that in the U.S. we don’t have all the regional parties that you have in the UK and only two rather than three national parties.

  • I’m rather puzzled by the Ideology Nolan chart. You say “The y-axis represents authoritarian beliefs, with those advocating civil liberties at the bottom and people with a more authoritarian outlook at the top”. Sorry, but there’s no way the Labour party are on the Libertarian side of centre. I wonder how you have scored this? The Political Compass has a General Election chart here: – it shows the Labour Party as mid-Authoritarian, pretty much where I’d expect (although I disagree with their comment that Lab were more libertarian pre-Blair).