It is now only six days until the country goes to the polls in what I think is the most interesting and closely fought election since 1974.
With a week to go in pretty much every election since then a clear winner has emerged and election night has simply been a confirmation of what was already known. But this time around the outcome is likely to be unknown until well into the night.
The opinion polls have always had David Cameron’s Conservatives ahead, but not with the type of vote needed to win an overall majority. But Nick Clegg’s strong showing in the first TV debate caused a major change and one of the biggest poll boosts seen in many years. Gordon Brown has largely struggled to persuade the public that this experience makes him a much better bet that his younger opponents and his poll ratings have not grown as he would have hoped.
Last night’s final debate did not change things too much. What surprises me is the widespread perception in the media that Cameron came out ahead. OK, I would expect the Spectator and the Telegraph to say that, but the BBC has come to a similar conclusion.
I saw a man avoiding questions, looking uncomfortable when pressed for policy commitments and looking shifty. Not the type of performance that marks out a potential Prime Minister.
What can the parties do in the closing days of this campaign to persuade the many floating voters that they are worthy of support?
This is now a three party election and that changes things. Our contenders have to take cognisance of this and frame their arguments in terms of the likely electoral arithmetic in the new House of Commons.
David Cameron will continue to press his case for change. He will argue that only strong government can take the actions necessary to reduce the deficit and continue economic growth. His fear must be that he gains the most MPs but cannot form a government due to a Lib – Lab deal.
Gordon Brown will warn the public against putting economic recovery at risk by voting for Tory cuts. He is already making noises about a deal with the Lib Dems, with some form of electoral reform on the table. But he has to ensure that his party maximises both its share of the vote and its representation in the new parliament to strengthen his hand in any discussions.
Clegg is revelling in his unexpected place in the spotlight. His call for fairness and an end to two party politics is appealing to the many voters turned off from politics by the expenses scandal. His newfound support will definitely increase the number of Lib Dem MPs and he will have a crucial role as kingmaker in the event of a hung parliament.
Our first past the post electoral system will ensure that tactical voting becomes important in the many marginal seats that will effectively decide the final result. For many voters the question will not so much be one of who they support but of who they would least like to see form a government.
And that can work in many different, and sometimes unpredictable, ways. It will not be enough to apply a notional swing figure at local level. Expect arguments over wasted votes to continue until the polls close as the parties fight for every seat.
A word on the smaller parties. They will have feared that the televised debates would marginalise their involvement in the campaign, and that has definitely proven to be the case. In Scotland, the SNP failed in a court case to be involved in the final debate and this lack of exposure may well cost them at the polls.
But in a hung parliament the votes of the parties in Scotland, Wales and Ireland will become very important. They will want considerable concessions for their areas in return for support and this will make deals difficult. Could a potential UK government save Scotland or Wales from cuts in return for votes and risk the ire of English voters?
One final point. At one time I feared that there would be a very low turnout in this election given the public’s perceptions of politicians. But I now feel that the debates and the media attention surrounding them will ensure that this doesn’t happen. The 60% of recent elections may well be exceeded this time around.
This is the most crucial election in many years. There are difficult times ahead for the country whoever wins, but there are differences in approach between the parties and every vote will count.
I’m not going to try to tell anyone how to vote. The information is there – make up your own mind. But I will call on everyone to use their vote. We live in a democracy and no one should take that for granted
Whoever you support, please do make that visit to the polling station next Thursday.
And then sit back and watch the results come in. I may be sad, but I plan to be up most of the night to watch it all unfold!