Election campaigns tend to magnify the differences between parties but, however much tribalists on both sides might protest, the long view suggests that the political differences between Labour and the Tories have continued to narrow.
New research by the indispensable Revolts shows that the Conservative front bench voted against just four out of 27 bills in the last session — a mere 15 per cent of government legislation. In total, the Tories opposed just one in five of the bills introduced since 2005. David Cameron has clearly lived up to his promise to support Labour when it does the right thing.
By contrast, under William Hague, the Tories voted against two out of every five; and under Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard they opposed one in three.
Much of this support is based on political calculation and Cameron has been careful to avoid Gordon Brown’s elephant traps. As one senior Tory MP told the Times:
There is a lot in the Equality Bill that we did not like at all, but they would have loved it had we been put in a position where we were opposing equality. Brown has also been trying to get us to oppose the 50p tax rate. But we won’t play his game.
But there is also a more principled approach at work that rejects opposition for opposition’s sake and recognises that it’s better to improve a bill than to reject it.
It is important to note that the research doesn’t include free votes on issues such as abortion, human fertilisation and fox-hunting, where significant ethical differences between the parties remain. But it does suggest we are moving towards a more consensual, European-style system.