How our MPs have voted since 1997

I ran the concept past Mick.  “Vote DUP, you get the Tories.  Vote Sinn Fein, you get the Tories anyway.”

All because of my impression that the DUP tend to vote with the Conservatives, and Sinn Fein’s absentionism means that the Government of the day enjoys an artificially increased majority – their 4 MPs from 2015 to 2017 means that there were only 645 normal seats actually taken in the House of Commons (650 less the Speaker), and therefore 323 seats were needed for a majority instead of 325.

That, of course, was before the polls highlighted a resurgence in support for Labour, which raises the distinct possibility of the Conservatives failing to reach an overall majority.

So, am I a million miles off?  Well… definitely not.

The Public Whip is my resource for this article.  Their website has a comprehensive database of how every MP has voted in Westminster since 1997 – whether according to their party’s whip (or the majority in their party), whether they were in the majority in the House of Commons, and whether they voted at all.  Some interesting lessons are there to be learned.

To begin with, a statement about assumptions.

I have assumed that to all intents and purposes, the proportion of times an NI MP votes with the majority in the House of Commons is more or less the same as the proportion of times they vote with the Government.  This is because:

  • The Government is rarely defeated in the House of Commons, so for these purposes I have assumed that every time a NI MP votes with the majority they are voting with the Government.  At 3 votes since 2015, 6 under the coalition government, 3 under Brown and 4 under Blair, these aren’t significant.
  • Private Members Bills rarely pass without Government support, so I’ve assumed that the Government is content with the result of all free votes and not adjusted the figures for these either.
  • As with all MPs, NI MPs act as tellers for votes.  For simplicity, these instances and abstentions are excluded.
  • These figures include other non-whipped votes as well.

With all of these things, the number of times an MP votes with the Government may in fact be overstated.

Bear in mind that attendances before double-jobbing was banned were a lot worse, and the figures are only attendance at divisions.  Participation in debates without a division are not included, and it does not therefore necessarily reflect daily attendance at Parliament.

Voting patterns and number of divisions

Number of divisions in each parliament

ParliamentGovernmentNumber of divisions
1997-2001Labour – Blair1273
2001-2005Labour – Blair1246
2005-2010Labour – Blair/Brown1288
2010-2015Conservative/Lib Dem – Cameron1239
2015-2017Conservative – Cameron/May467

Voting patterns 1997-2001

PartyNumber of MPs% of votes with Government% of votes attended
DUP2.24*15%13%
SDLP340%3%
SF2N/A0%
UKUP116%6%
UUP9.76*16%21%

*Clifford Forsythe (UUP) succeeded by William McCrea (DUP)

Voting patterns 2001-2005

PartyNumber of MPs% of votes with Government% of votes attended
DUP515%38%
SDLP375%4%
SF4N/A0%
UUP520%52%
UUP/DUP*115%35%

*Jeffrey Donaldson.  David Burnside and Martin Smyth also gave up the UUP whip for a time but rejoined later.

Voting patterns 2005-2010

PartyNumber of MPs% of votes with Government% of votes attended
DUP920%37%
SDLP371%23%
SF5N/A0%
UUP136%26%

Voting patterns 2010-2015

PartyNumber of MPs% of votes with Government% of votes attended
Alliance129%51%
DUP830%43%
Independent125%37%
SDLP314%44%
SF5N/A0%

Voting patterns 2015-2017

PartyNumber of MPs% of votes with Government% of votes attended
DUP871%53%
Independent135%63%
SDLP35%66%
SF4N/A0%
UUP261%64%

It actually shows up something I wasn’t expecting.  I correctly anticipated that the DUP was primarily voting with the Government in the 2015-17 Parliament, but I didn’t expect to find that they were voting against the Coalition from 2010-2015 in much the same proportions even allowing for differences in policy between the relevant parties.

So, back to my hypothesis.  Is a vote for the DUP a vote for the Conservatives?  On the strength of the statistics for every Parliament except the Coalition, the answer is apparently yes, and the same goes for the UUP, although not as much, even during the UCUNF period.

And is a vote for Sinn Fein a vote for the Conservatives?  Well, half a vote, because every other Sinn Fein MP thereafter who doesn’t take their seat is one more vote the Government doesn’t need to worry about beating.

In the end, therefore, while Alliance, DUP, SDLP and UUP will all vote according to their declared party policies, and similarly with Lady Hermon, with the inherent pragmatism where all our parties and Independents are free to support the Government against the trends when it matches party policy, the general position remains that the Unionist parties will support the Conservatives, and everyone else will not.

The difference is that Sinn Fein’s abstentionism will make life easier for a Government which either has a very slim majority or is otherwise relying on smaller parties to prop them out – and that Government may not be to their taste at all.

  • More interesting would be have their votes made a difference?

  • AndyB

    Good question. The answer is that to have a chance of making a difference, you have to be elected and take your seat in the Commons to begin with.

  • Nevin

    Andy, arguments in and outside the Commons as well as votes can make a difference.

    Governments with large majorities will probably need determined dissent within its own party ranks to make a difference; parties not in government have limited opportunities for making a difference.

  • For decades Ireland voted for Home Rule parties, how did that turn out? I’m curious if NI’s MPs votes count.

  • Chris Morris

    No, that isn’t the answer to his question, it’s a repetition of the premise of your piece. Had it been addressed in the piece there’d have been no need for the question.

  • Vince

    I think that the message to take from the most recent period of unfettered Conservative government is that a vote for the DUP and UUP is a vote FOR the Conservatives whilst a vote for the SDLP and Sylvia Hermon is a vote AGAINST. A vote for SF is NOTHING.

    I don’t believe the recent polls suggesting just 1-4% leads for the Conservatives but if they are correct then these observations are important.

  • Skibo

    Not strictly true. To analyse the effect of the SF MP you first have to consider who did they unseat to take that post. Most of their MPs were previously either DUP or UUP MPs. That is other than the West Belfast seat where Gerry Fitt sat. The interesting thing is when Fitt’s vote was crucial to save a Labour PM, he abstained!

  • Vince

    Not the case with Seamus Mallon in Newry and Armagh. Also Joe Hendron held WB 1992-1997. So not just Fitt. And if they were to succeed against Ritchie in S Down, that’s another vote against the Conservatives lost.