The most fun part of tonight as a political journalist will be the surprises that no one saw coming. That there will be some is inevitable due to the obvious flaws in predictions based on national polling; bear in mind that the election may ultimately be decided by under 50,000 people in Britain’s most marginal seats.
And for all the glitz and hype surrounding the televised debates many voters will still go the polls on May 6 determined to back individuals rather than their national leaders.
That could throw up some seemingly bizarre results, as incumbent MPs are rewarded or shunned regardless of the national mood. Such upsets are not impossible even in one or two of the 50 most marginal Labour seats which have already been written off by the party hierarchy because they are vulnerable to swings of 2.7 per cent or less.
In Stroud, which I visited a fortnight ago, incumbent David Drew admitted that he had been “given up” by the leadership and left to his fate: and not for the first time. He had received no money from Unite, the union which has tried to counter Lord Ashcroft’s Tory funding in marginal seats.
The claim may seem preposterous, given the psephology. (And no, I haven’t put a bet on him defying political gravity). Yet during an unchaperoned visit to the Cotswolds town I met local after local who owed Mr Drew their vote on polling day. Derek Rimmer, a wheelchair-bound former serviceman, went to his MP because of problems with his disability allowance. “David Drew took it up with the secretary of state and made it possible for me to keep working in my little job, it stopped me going gaga,” he said.
Jade Gale, who is 18 and unemployed, said she would vote for the Labour MP because she had problems with her passport (”because I was using two names”) which he sorted out for her. Mr Drew has won kudos for his austere expense claims and for standing up to his party leadership: “I have a love-hate relationship with my party,” he admitted.
People talked about Mr Drew’s diligence, his extensive knowledge of the area and his down-to-earth charm; he travels around on a bicycle. “He’s always around the town, if you have any kind of a problem he helps you – I had a business problem…and he was very very helpful,” said Ian Allen, who runs his own financial services business. “He’s a good man who happens to be in the wrong party.”
Something of a maverick, the eurosceptic Mr Drew will also have the backing of Ukip today; the anti-European party has been leafleting on his behalf. Speaking to this newspaper at a school event, the MP admitted that the tide was running against Labour: “You have to be realistic,” he sighed. “But anyone who can read Stroud is either psychic or a betting person. It’s really a question of measuring locality issues against national issues. I have done a lot of work here.”
While Labour has strong support in Stroud itself, it is on weaker ground in picture-perfect villages beyond that comprise most of the constituency. “I think they (Labour) are struggling to cover the ground,” said Neil Carmichael, the Tory candidate. Mr Carmichael, a farmer turned businessman, claimed the Conservative policies on immigration and the economy were his trump card. But he admitted that Mr Drew was a popular figure who is “untainted” by the expenses scandal.
Back in the town, two middle-aged women both said they would vote Tory despite their affection for the incumbent. “I have sympathy for him, but a vote for him is a vote for Gordon Brown and Labour,” said one. “I feel sorry for him if he loses but he should have stood as an independent, he would have had a large level of support,” said her friend, 52-year old Eileen Waldron.