Our Friends in the North? The DUP and the Tories aren’t ideologically close

Following the shock result of Thursday’s General Election, the Prime Minister has announced her intention to form a government with the help with her “friends and allies in the DUP”. The DUP and the Conservatives are aligned in their commitment to Brexit and Northern Ireland’s place in the union, but they are far from ideological twins with regards to other issues.

Much has been made of the incompatibilities between the DUP’s hard-line stance on same sex marriage and the Conservatives, especially the party-within-a-party of Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives. However, on bread and butter tax-and-spend issues the two parties do not always see eye-to-eye. Neither the parliamentary party nor DUP voters share the Conservatives’ commitment to a smaller state, and on many issues they are closer to Labour than the Conservatives.

Back in 2015 I compiled analysis on the differences in ideological voting patterns between the various parties in Westminster. The following chart from then shows how MPs voted, with economically left and right on the x-axis, and social issues on the y-axis (socially left being below the x-axis, and socially right above the x-axis).

The DUP were essentially halfway between the two largest parties, tending to vote with Labour on fiscal matters but further to the right on social policy. Bear in mind that this was when the Liberal Democrats were in a coalition government, and therefore voted with the Tories more often than they do now.

More recently, the DUP have a consistent record of siding with Labour and not the Conservatives on tax-and-spend issues. I looked at data from The Public Whip to look at how the DUP and the Conservatives voted in Parliament since the 2015 General Election. There were 467 divisions in the House of Commons in the last Parliament. Of these, the DUP with the government voted on 206 occasions, and against the Tories 77 times (only considering votes where at least half of both the Conservatives and the DUP voted), meaning that the DUP voted with the Conservatives 73% of the time. There were 184 votes in which either or both of half the respective parliamentary parties did not vote.

The DUP certainly have a track record of voting with the Tories more often than the similarly-sized post-2015 Liberal Democrat contingent, who only voted with the government on 7% of the occasions where at least of half both parliamentary parties voted. DUP MPs will presumably have to show up on more occasions in the next parliament; DUP MPs only voted 53% of the time since the 2015 election, compared to the Conservatives who voted on 83% of occasions.

However, on opposition days, where subjects chosen by the opposition are debated, the DUP voted against the government on 14 of the 20 occasions (70%) where the majority of both blocs of MPs voted. Examples of votes where the DUP and the Tories opposed each other were on calls for state support for the steel industry, to stop the scrapping of maintenance grants for low income students, and a debate on the tax deal reached between Google and HMRC.

When the opposition get to decide the topic between debated, the DUP’s voting record is generally left-leaning and aligned with the Labour party. The rate at which the DUP have backed the Conservatives is somewhat bolstered by the sheer number of Brexit-related votes in the last parliament, with 45 out of the 467 divisions in the last parliament related to the topic.

Aside from the parliamentary party, DUP voters are also left-leaning on bread-and-butter taxation and spending issues. I looked at data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT), a survey that has been running from 1998 and monitors the opinions of Northern Ireland residents on politics and other matters.

In the NILT survey from 2014, 34% of people who identified as DUP voters said that “Improving the health service” was the most important issue facing Northern Ireland, only two points fewer than the 36% of voters of the left-leaning SDLP.

In the most recent NILT survey, respondents were asked if it was fair that people should have to sell their home to pay for their care. Only 19% of DUP voters agreed that this fair, one point fewer than the Liberal Democrat aligned Alliance Party. When asked if it was fair that care should be universally free and funded by an increase in taxation, the majority (61%) of DUP voters agreed that it was fair. This was only seven percentage points fewer than the percentage of Sinn Féin voters (68%) who thought the same.

DUP voters, whilst very much in favour of Brexit and (obviously) Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, are in favour of better public services and not necessarily opposed to tax rises to pay for them, and the voting behaviour of the DUP in parliament broadly reflects this.

Ultimately, the DUP are economic populists and parochial in outlook, and the wishlist they present to the Conservatives is likely to be dominated for requests for more UK government funds for Northern Ireland, although a UK-wide repeal of the bedroom tax was one of the demands they presented in 2015. Northern Ireland is already the area of the UK that receives the most public expenditure on a per capita basis.

There are significant political risks for both sides. It is likely to be politically toxic for the Tories if the gap in spending between Northern Ireland and Great Britain grows even wider, as it will be seen as enforcing austerity in Great Britain to pay for a political bribe to the DUP.

For the DUP, there are risks locally if they are part of a government that imposes unpopular cuts locally, especially if there is no return of the mothballed Northern Ireland Assembly and direct rule makes a comeback. The standard playbook of asking for more money from the government in London won’t work if they are the government in London.

Of course, it is difficult to see who might mount a credible challenge to the DUP from the left amongst unionist voters, considering that the UUP had an alliance with the Tories as recently as 2010. But we will be in uncharted waters if the DUP joins the British government, so it is difficult to foresee what might happen.

Whilst much has been made of the differences between the DUP and the Conservatives on social issues, on taxation and spending issues there are also significant issues between the two sides and it is difficult to predict how they will find common ground to form a government. The Tories may not be as close to “our friends in the north” as they might think, and it is difficult to see how a coalition between the DUP and the Conservatives will be anything other than weak and unstable.

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  • Claire Mitchell

    Fascinating to see this with data instead of just hunches. I can actually see the DUP and May getting on ok as she was attempting to lean left (and failing obv, but giving it a lash). But if the free-market libertarian wing get the party back it will surely be carnage.

  • Zorin001

    Confidence and supply looks safer for both parties

  • Peter Ryan

    Lean left? Sorry, but how was she doing that?

  • Sprite

    this was always the case – every Northern Ireland party believes in state provision of public services and they would all want to protect benefits, the elderly and the disabled for example.

    first indications on the BBC tonight are that the DUP want the Tories to u-turn on their manifesto plans to remove the triple lock on pensions and make winter fuel allowance subject to means testing – that won’t be popular with some in the Tory party but will be with millions of pensioners

  • Claire Mitchell

    Oh yeah, she isn’t at all left! But with energy cap etc. she was suggesting a bit more state intervention, which enraged the free-marketeers in the Conservative party (and outside, like Osborne etc.).

  • Korhomme

    Confidence and supply; confidence to pass the Queen’s speech, supply to pass finance bills.

    Now, what of the GFA, the ‘neutral’ UK government, the stagnating Assembly and Executive. Will this mean the return of Direct Rule? Who wants that?

  • Zorin001

    Im in the very odd position of supporting the DUP on the pension issue. Its an odd and slighty uncomfortable feeling.

  • Zorin001

    The DUP are at the big table now, thats all that matters. Its not like their base will desert them

  • john millar

    Falls about laughing the DUPERS will swallow anything to poke Corbyn/SF in the eye.

  • Barney

    The Polish governing party Law and Justice (PiS) which were temporarily wooed by the Tories post brexit referendum are exactly the same in practice and policy as the DUP. It’s frightening what this party are doing, an example of their schizophrenia was when the interior minister awarded himself a medal then refused to accept it.

  • Granni Trixie

    I seem to remember that In bcc all parties including Paisleys rallied together to oppose the taking away of free milk for schoolchildren, under the slogan “mrs thatcher, milk snatcher”.

  • Pasty2012

    Teresa May castigated Corbyn and Labour over the “possibility” of going into a coalition Government with the Democratic SNP who have never been associated with terrorists, yet here today we have the May and the Tory’s preparing to go into Government with a Party who have had in the past UVF Terrorists as Councillors and who’s current MP’s have been endorsed by Loyalist paramilitary group that was involved in a number of murders in the last number of weeks and months.

    If it was wrong for a coalition to be considered by Labour and the SNP then how is OK for May and Tory’s to go into Government with the DUP?

    The late David Ervine, a Loyalist paramilitary commander and leader of the PUP political group made people aware that the DUP asked the loyalist paramilitary group NOT to call or go on Ceasefire in the 1990’s. That being the case what would anyone think they were wanting the paramilitary group to continue doing whist NOT being on ceasefire? – yes really hard to think what they would be doing?

    The DUP in the North of Ireland have been providing Government funding on a “favoured” basis to their friends and fellow believers. Is this what the people in GB want to become the Norm in their countries?

    And this is the type of Party that is being welcomed into the Heart of British Government, The Party that will be in part Governing the British People, the cost is turning a blind eye to murders in the past of innocent men, women and children. And this from a British Government who tells the World that they have to arm and fund groups to topple Governments around the World that have been murdering innocent people their own countries!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Watched a discussion on tv in which the brilliant Irish commentator Brian O’Connell very politely and calmly banged Owen Jones to rights over his fulminations about the DUP. His main point was that the social policies might be something you disagree with but actually aren’t actually that relevant to the deal with the Tories; and that people also miss that the DUP can’t be written off as a purely reactionary party, they vote with Labour on lots of stuff around welfare and investment – Tory-lite they ain’t, as I think Salmon of Data on here has shown.

    The DUP-bashing by my fellow liberal types over here also misses a few other tricks:
    – that the now highly lauded Corbyn, whatever you think of his support for violence in the Troubles or otherwise, is undeniably at the very least partisan on NI. Yet we’re told by Alastair Campbell and others a mainland party can’t possibly be associated with one side and not the other in N Ireland as it “threatens the Peace Process”.
    – even without the SF-favouring tastes of the Corbyn circle, Labour has long talked of the SDLP as its “sister party”. That is picking sides in N Ireland, which again we’re told parties can’t do. Its position used to be to even oppose a Select Committee in Westminster for N Ireland because John Hume as a nationalist told them to – on the basis it would strengthen the Union. I personally debated this with Kevin McNamara when he spoke at my law school in 1994.
    – the SDLP’s position on abortion is the same as the DUP’s
    – SF’s position on abortion is far from as liberal as the Labour Party or Tory position either. It still backs the basic prohibition on abortion in the Republic, only seeking some carve-outs for extreme circumstances. They may privately favour abortion on demand, I don’t know – but I gather McGuinness as a good Catholic was solidly abortion-skeptic and the party position has reflected that.

    But all in all, it has been galling and unintentionally hilarious to listen to Labour supporting people over here, who are untroubled by having a SF-supporting leader, fulminating with self-righteous anger over the Tories having the support of the DUP. At some level, people over there don’t compute who SF are, what they did and the disgraceful treatment they still mete out to their organisation’s many thousands of victims, to whom not a penny of compensation has been paid.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But you’re OK with the Labour hierarchy backing Sinn Fein?

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  • Barney

    The DUP are a classic populist party who will do and say anything to gain power they have no ideology except “Unionism” which I’m sure you will agree is not really an ideology. So it’s no surprise that an ideological rigid hard right wing party have little in common with an economically populist party.

    Slandering Jeremy Corbyn or misrepresenting his position is quite a low thing to be doing. The man would probably be implementing a progressive and popular manifesto if he had not been undermined by a bunch of crypto tories from the beginning of his leadership.

    I remember you arguing that the Anglo Irish agreement was undemocratic because HMG didn’t take an extreme Irish unionist stance. What Thatcher did was impose a broader idea of Unionism on Ireland because John Hume won that particular argument. There was nothing undemocratic about the AIA the British Government are sovereign.

  • Barney


  • MainlandUlsterman

    it did not have the support of the people of N Ireland. Same thing Tories did with poll tax in Scotland – picked out an area for specially bad treatment without seeking consent there for so doing. Just crap government, and of course it became a barrier to progress for many years as it privileged SDLP and they refused to give that up.

  • Get The Grade Get The Grade

    I think you have it the wrong way around. It’s after having seen the Tory press rip into their man for years, slandering him left, right and centre, that they now feel angered by the hypocrisy of the Tories. Corbyn would not have been asking SF to prop up his government yet May has no problem with getting the DUP/UDA on board in her desperate hour of need.

    This, I feel, is where the anger is coming from and it is for this reason that nearly one million Brits (thus far) have signed up to a petition wanting this morally questionable (to them) arrangement ended.

  • epg_ie

    The problem with this vote direction analysis in Westminster systems is that the split always signifies government-opposition rather than left-right. Do the analysis for the 2005-10 parliament and the DUP would have looked like Conservatives, because most votes involve the government and the opposition voting as two blocs.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    See Mick’s brilliant piece on DUP, puts it better than me.

    Truth is Labour were informally sounding out DUP in 2015 as Nigel Dodds will testify. Dodds is far from the pariah figure in Westminster that English tabloids are pretending. Has many friends in Labour as well as Tories.

    As for Labour people sounding off on this – and I write as a former party member and I hope a future one once Corbyn goes – they don’t have a leg to stand on on questions of links with N Ireland parties. Their “sister party” in NI is also anti-abortion and the party favoured by the Labour leadership regards the murderers of nearly 2,000 of their fellow citizens as heroes.

    Objecting to the DUP on a “human rights” basis without apparently objecting to SF on a human right basis is simply an illogical and untenable position. It is probably also ethnically partisan.

  • David J Timson

    I think you will find that quite a lot of Conservative voters are more economically “left” than their party and might well support many of the same things as DUP voters….the Daily Mail is not always as Thatcherite as folk might want to believe (but it does have the pulse of middle England Tories!)