In the 1951 election the Labour and Conservative parties between them won 96.8% of the votes and all but 9 of the 625 seats at Westminster. We really did have a two-party system.
However, even this two-party adversarial system did not produce a yawning chasm between the policies of the parties. In fact most historians now regard this period as a time of political consensus, although politicians would have denied it at the time.
The electoral arithmetic has now changed and we have a multi-party system. At the last election in 2010 the Labour and Conservative parties won only 65.1% of the vote and 86 seats went to other parties or to independents.
This trend looks set to continue with the rise of the Ukip vote and the electoral breakthroughs of the Greens, Respect and Alliance parties.
With the dissipation of votes away from the Labour and Conservative parties, another coalition government is calculated to be at least 50% likely after a future general election.
So, could we ever see a Labour-Conservative government? We already have. The Labour and Conservative parties worked successfully together in coalition in both world wars.
Yesterday’s announcement on the Labour Party’s economic policies clearly positions the party closer to the Conservatives than it was. Tony Blair’s government adopted Conservative spending plans for the first two years after their election in 1997. So, these parties do not find each other’s policies completely unpalatable. The debate over the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’ has produced a Labour-Conservative alliance against Lib Dem opposition. Labour and Conservative policies on education, HS2 and immigration are also very similar.
In local government there is increasing collaboration between the Labour and Conservative parties, as illustrated by the arrangements on Warwickshire County Council after May’s election. The Conservatives lost their majority, but through a deal with the Labour Party, retained control of the council.
The Labour and Conservative parties never acknowledged that their policies were so similar in the 1950s and they will focus intensely on their areas of difference leading up to the next election. However, alternative policies put forward by other parties such as the Greens, Ukip, Respect and in some areas, such as immigration and nuclear weapons, by the Lib Dems are likely show that the Labour and Conservative policies differ relatively little and that the radical ideas come from outside the biggest parties.
So, will we ever see a Labour-Conservative coalition? Once, the idea was laughable. They’re not laughing now.