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.

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