The DUP's Westminster leader Nigel Dodds speaks in the House of Commons.
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DUP could do a deal with Labour, says party's Westminster leader

Nigel Dodds says he "can do business" with Ed Miliband and praises his responsible capitalism agenda. 

There is one prediction that most in Westminster make with confidence about this most unpredictable of elections: it will result in another hung parliament. Even with the support of the Lib Dems, Labour and the Conservatives fear that they may be unable to form a majority government. In these circumstances, the small parties acquire new significance. Among them is the DUP, currently the fourth largest party in the Commons with eight seats.

The Northern Irish party is traditionally viewed as a potential partner for the Conservatives, who considered a deal with them before the 2010 election. But when I interviewed the DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, he rejected this characterisation and signalled that he was open to an agreement with Labour.

“We can do business with either of the two leaders, either Ed Miliband or David Cameron, and we will obviously judge what’s in the best interests of the United Kingdom as a whole,” the North Belfast MP told me. “And obviously we’ll also be looking at it from the point of view of the constituencies that we represent in Northern Ireland as a whole. Unionism has worked in the past with Labour governments and we’ve worked in the past with Conservative governments back in the 70s. Indeed, the Ulster Unionist Party propped up the Callaghan administration. But it remains to be seen. We are certainly not in the pocket of either party and we’re certainly in a position where we’re able to negotiate with both of them.”

Greater protection for defence and tougher border controls

Dodds indicated that his party’s priorities in any negotiations would be greater protection for defence and stricter immigration controls. "We are not interested in a full-blown coalition government with ministerial positions and all of that. What we’re interested in is, first and foremost, we want to do what’s right as far as the country as a whole is concerned. We do believe in a strong Britain in a very troubled world. We believe, therefore, on issues like defence and security, it’s important that we put the investment in there, it’s important that we strengthen our borders, so that people have a say on Europe, for instance. All of those things matter to us greatly."

The party is demanding the maintenance of defence spending of at least 2 per cent of GDP and restrictions on welfare benefits for EU migrants. 

Abolition of the bedroom tax

In a boost for Labour, however, Dodds also demanded the abolition of the bedroom tax. "We in Northern Ireland in the Assembly have made it clear that the welfare changes have been imposed, more or less with no choice but to go along with the broad thrust of them, because to do otherwise would cost the Northern Ireland block grant an enormous amount of money. We have, however, made a provision that we will not implement the bedroom tax and there are other changes, tweaks as well. We don’t believe the bedroom tax being imposed on existing tenants is fair or reasonable and we think it’s caused undue hardship, so we would like to see that abolished right across the board."

Praise for Miliband's "responsible capitalism"

Dodds also said he had "a lot of sympathy" with Ed Miliband’s call for "responsible capitalism" and supported his demand for greater market intervention. "On the energy stuff, Ed Miliband has been right to point to the need to take stronger action on that," he said

"I just think that people rail against regulation, as if somehow it’s a bad and dirty thing in itself. The way in which energy markets work, the way in which there’s big monopolies and such power concentrated, that’s an example of where I think you have to step in and say ‘so far and no more’. You have to be able to step in and do what’s right and the constant siphoning off of major profits and issues like not responding quickly enough to falls in prices, that all needs to be tackled much more robustly than it is at the minute."

He added: "The DUP is seen sometimes as right-of-centre. We’re right-of-centre on many issues but we’re not right-of-centre when it comes to these issues of how the market should operate in terms of how society should work. We believe there’s a strong role for supporting people and for government to step in when necessary to do that."

Dodds told me that Miliband’s recent visit to Northern Ireland went "extremely well" and praised his support for the devolution of corporation tax to the country." The visit went extremely well, it’s the difference between the television persona and how people see you when they meet directly. I think people were reasonably impressed with him.” He praised Ivan Lewis, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, who he said had done "a very, very good job" and would make "an excellent secretary of state".

Criticism of Cameron over Northern Ireland

Dodds was critical, however, of David Cameron’s lack of engagement with Northern Irish issues. "Our view is that the Prime Minister should and could have been more engaged in Northern Ireland over the course of the parliament than he has been. He’s left it very much to Owen Paterson, first of all, and now Theresa Villiers. Certainly from our point of view, the Prime Minister could have been much more engaged in Northern Ireland issues and it’s been to our regret that he hasn’t been more involved."

The full interview with Nigel Dodds appears in this week’s New Statesman, out on Thursday.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a force at least united in name.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will remain a story.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.