Unpredictable? Anyone who says they know what’s happening is lying.

Less than three weeks to go until polling day and this is still one of the most unpredictable elections anyone can remember. Indeed Ed Balls quipped, on a visit to Ipswich yesterday, that even when people were wrong in the past, they were collectively wrong. Wilson was incorrectly expected to win in 1970. Kinnock likewise in 1992. Cameron was expected to get a majority in 2010.

Anyone who tells you they know what will happen in this election is lying. But what we can do is start to predict individual seats. There are some really exciting changes happening, which will make election night one of tears of joy and anguish.

Here are my tips for seats that will – or won’t – change hands unexpectedly.

Castle Point – The Tories have held Castle Point for every election since 1983, with the exception of 1997 when Labour took the seat for four short years. Bob Spink quit the Tories in 2008 and briefly joined UKIP, before resigning the whip and sitting as an independent MP. He lost to Tory Rebecca Harris in 2010. Yet UKIP’s Jamie Huntman might well be on course to become a UKIP MP, in what has suddenly become a close fight between the Tories and UKIP. UKIP gain.

Harlow – This seat is a classic bell weather seat. Labour hold it when they are in Government, the Tories when they’re in power. In 2010 Robert Halfon won the seat from Bill Rammell and many expected it to go back to Labour in this election. But Mr Halfon has been an outspoken and populist MP and privately some Labour officials have conceded that they’ve lost Harlow. Tory hold.

Norwich South – In 2010 the Liberal Democrats narrowly beat sitting Labour MP Charles Clarke, leaving Norwich unrepresented by a Labour MP for the first time in decades. However in a defining example of the dangers of coalition for the junior partner, the Liberal Democrat candidate Simon Wright is likely to come third – or even fourth – in his defence of his seat. This seat is a competitive race between former BBC journalist Clive Lewis for Labour and the Green Party’s Lesley Grahame. It’s apparently very tight, but I suspect that Labour will have done enough here. Labour gain.

Clacton – There is a rule in politics that personal votes are rarely worth more than a handful of votes. Clacton is the seat that proves that every rule has an exception. Douglas Carswell won this seat with 53% of the vote as a Tory in 2010. He then won the seat in a by-election he caused to become UKIP’s first elected MP – with 59% of the vote. Everyone else has given up on this seat, and it would be a massive shock for Mr Carswell not to be returned as the next MP for Clacton – a shock akin to David Cameron losing his Witney seat to the National Health Alliance party. UKIP hold.

Rochester – I’ve heard rumours that there are Tories at Conservative Campaign Headquarters who are so angry with Mark Reckless that they’d be happy to have lost the General Election to a Labour majority, so long as Mark Reckless lost his seat. The Tories have flung everything they have at this seat, and with UKIP unable to maintain the by-election atmosphere they had six months ago, Rochester Castle is likely to be breached. Tory gain.

Finchley & Golders Green – Most of this seat is an approximate successor to the seat that Baroness Thatcher represented for 33 years – yet in 1997 it went red. Labour’s Rudi Vis held the seat from 1997 to 2010, when Mike Freer won with a healthy majority. Yet a shock poll by Lord Ashcroft this week puts Mr Freer 2% behind his Labour opponent Sarah Sackman. Since the poll was carried out over Passover, it is likely flawed, and it would be a huge shock for Labour to have overturned a 12% majority. Because of this poll, and because it was Maggie Thatcher’s seat, expect the media to be shocked that Mike Freer holds on. Tory hold.

Don’t ignore democracy – or it will ignore you

I read this recently in a book about a Nazi massacre, committed in Ukraine, during World War 2. The book was written by a Ukrainian author but because it criticised both the National Socialists and the Communist Party equally, it was banned by the Soviet Union’s censors.

The author clearly knew more about totalitarian regimes than any one person deserved to know. You can understand why someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, lived through Nazi occupation, and then was plunged back into Soviet domination, might hold on to the ideal of democracy more fiercely than those of us in the West who take it so much for granted.

The act of casting a vote to determine the future of a nation never fails to fill me with awe. Elections in many nations around the world – Nigeria just two weeks ago, for instance – see queues miles long as people turn out in their millions.

Yet turnouts here have fallen over time. Between 1922 and 1991 turnout for UK General Elections never fell below 71%. In 2001 it fell to a recent record low – 59.4%. In 2005 it was 61.4% and in 2010 it climbed to 65.1%. More than one in three people cannot be bothered to vote – and that figure only includes those who are registered to vote.

Many different theories abound about why people do not vote. The most popular – that all the parties are the same, or its lazier variant, that they do not keep their promises – are easily dismissed by a simple consideration of the facts. While some policies may be similar, the basic philosophies of the different political parties are wildly different. And by and large parties DO keep their promises. 95% of the coalition agreement has been implemented – which means a huge amount of both Conservative & Liberal Democrat manifestos were implemented over the last five years. Equally Labour’s 2005 manifesto was, for the most part, implemented.

Another reason often given for falling turnouts is the fact that, between 1992 and 2010, none of the results were in doubt. The 1992 General Election had the highest percentage turnout for any election since February 1974. The 2010 General Election had the highest turnout since 1997.

Yet the result of this election, in 3 ½ weeks, is very much in doubt. But I doubt turnout will be much higher than it was in 2010. Sure, some non-voters will turnout for UKIP. Some will turnout for the Greens. Some 2010 non-voters will return to Labour. But most will remain uninspired and sat at home.

So what you might ask. Who cares if these people don’t vote – surely that is their right?

Well I care. In 2012, at the Police & Crime Commissioner elections, people couldn’t be bothered to vote. In Suffolk, despite a massive Tory majority just 2 years earlier at the General Election, when almost a half of those who voted, voted Tory, Labour topped the poll on first preference votes. While nobody would suggest that Labour are an extremist party (well nobody sane, anyway) low turnouts can result in extremists getting elected.

So if you are a party activist, get out there and campaign on the doorsteps for your guy or gal. If you are a candidate, make sure you do everything you can to get every last voter out. And if you are a registered voter? Get your arse down to the polling station and vote.

If you’re not registered, you are the extremists’ favourite type of voter. Stand up and be counted. You have until the end of this week to get registered. Do it. Here.

7 Leaders Debate will make no difference in the end

So David Cameron’s chicken run – insisting on 7 participants in the Leader’s Debate – has been proven to be sound and sensible tactics for the Tory leader.

What do you do if you are stuck facing a debate you cannot win but you cannot get out of? You engineer it so that so many people are taking part, your opponent can’t win either. Then you refuse to engage and allow the smaller parties to beat your opponent up because he can’t avoid taking on every question.

So it proved last night, as David Cameron faced six other party leaders but no actual scrutiny. Ed Miliband again exceeded expectations by failing to fall flat on his face, and was only trounced on the exceeding expectations front by Natalie Bennett; after her interview last month she pretty much just had to prove she could remember her name.

Yet it was Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon who were proclaimed the winners of the debate. I’m not so sure. Nicola Sturgeon undoubtedly won the Scottish election and has put serious pressure on both Jim Murphy and Ed Miliband – without Scotland, Mr Miliband stands little chance of entering Downing Street on his own, and if Labour are nearly wiped out there, Jim Murphy will struggle to survive as Scottish Labour leader, despite the fact he has only just taken over and cannot really be blamed for failing to prevent the catastrophe of someone else’s making.

But Nigel Farage was borderline racist, and made some truly vile statements. It may be true that two thirds of patients who happen to be HIV positive are immigrants. So what. The UK has a history of tolerance and fairness, a cultural desire to stick up for the underdog. There won’t be many voters who want to see people who are HIV positive sent back to countries where anti-retroviral drugs are simply not available. That’s a death sentence.

Mr Farage no doubt solidified his base support – around 12% of the electorate – but I doubt he made the real breakthrough he needed to make to get above 15-20% and win more than five or six seats. Indeed, for me, he has gone from a right wing Tory to someone who has seriously flawed ideas who should never be allowed to represent this country. The country I love does not turn its back on the sick just because of an accident of their birth.

All seven of the politicians were full of hypocrisy – Miliband attacked Cameron for failing to take enough measures against tax avoidance, and for representing millionaires, despite his own election as leader being funded by a hedge fund millionaire and despite having helped his Mum avoid inheritance tax. Farage hilariously attacked people who went to private schools for dominating politics. That would be Nigel Farage, alumni of Dulwich College.

Nick Clegg attacked the Tories as though he hadn’t just spent five years in Government with them, and the Green Party’s Australian leader Natalie Bennett attacked all the main parties over their stance on immigration – it is wrong to keep people out, she says. I don’t know enough about Scottish or Welsh politics to immediately identify the porkers that Sturgeon and Leanne Wood made, though I am sure they existed. Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, the Party of Wales, said she spoke for the Welsh people, yet Plaid Cymru is the fourth most popular political party in Wales…

In short, Cameron avoided a stumble, Miliband avoided a stumble and Clegg got out almost unscathed. As expected (and as in 2010) the higher TV profile helped the smaller parties – Leanne Wood was unlikely to be a household name even in the kitchens of political nerds – but in the end I doubt the debate will have changed many votes. Polling suggests many people are still yet to make up their minds, so this morning it will be back to the campaign trail for the various political candidates.

Miliband shows NO history of standing up to power; he bends the knee

The national media appears to be obsessed with Ed Miliband in a way that they haven’t been with previous opposition leaders – red or blue.

Miliband is a busted flush, they say, the public mistrust him. He’s a joke, or he’s the man who stabbed his brother in the back. Most damningly, he’s the Tories secret weapon.

All of this is utter rot, of course. He’s a decent guy who has an ability to connect with voters in a very direct way – face to face. It is hardly surprising Labour want to hold 4 million conversations with voters; if Miliband was involved in all of them, they’d be a lot further ahead in the polls.

But Labour have GOT to get a better answer when the national media come calling and question his leadership qualities.

Labour candidate for Ipswich, David Ellesmere, told Channel 4 News a fortnight ago that people recognise Ed Miliband “stood up to power” because he took on Rupert Murdoch. Last night he was at it again, claiming on BBC Newsnight that:

“When people think about the way he stands up to powerful interests, when he stood up to Rupert Murdoch over phone hacking, when he stood up to the energy companies when David Cameron didn’t, and in particular when he stopped the headlong rush to war in Syria, I think people do actually like those qualities.”

Labour campaigners are not going to like me saying this, and they’ll accuse me of the same bias they’re currently accusing the BBC and every other national news organisation bar the Mirror, the People and the Guardian, but what absolute rubbish.

Standing up to power? Let’s take the briefest look at the facts shall we?

On phone hacking, Ed Miliband and Labour got most upset because Labour MPs and peers, like Lord Prescott, had their mobile phones hacked. Despite the fact that interfering with a mobile telephone is already a criminal offence, Labour used the scandal to push for laws that would allow Government’s to regulate the content of our “free” press.

As for standing up to Rupert Murdoch, if only he had! Just last week Rupert Murdoch told the world how Ed Miliband fawned over him so much at their meeting it was embarrassing. But even if he had stood up to Murdoch, it is easy to attack your enemies in the media, but much more impressive to stand up to your friends. So while Labour MPs were berating Ed Miliband for posing with a copy of the Sun, which he weakly apologised for, there has been total silence from Ed Miliband about the revelations that journalists at the Mirror operated an industrial scale phone hacking that pushed celebrities like Paul Gascoigne into the alcoholic gutter.

David Ellesmere with a block of iceOn standing up to the energy companies, I am astonished that any Labour candidate, anywhere in the country, wants to remind the voters of this flawed policy. What happened? Oh that’s right, Ed Miliband announced a price freeze on energy companies after the election. But it turned out that prices were right at their peak; had the legislation that Labour tried to introduce in the Commons been enacted we’d all be stuck paying much more for our energy than we are now. Since Ed Miliband announced a price freeze, prices have fallen considerably. Suddenly this “freeze” was a cap. Which presumably explains why Labour candidates were queuing up at the Labour Party Conference to have their photo taken with a giant block of ice; ice being related to caps after all. Indeed, now we don’t know if it is a cap (some Labour people say so) or a freeze (some Labour leaflets still claim this). Chaos.

But, I hear you say, surely where David Ellesmere is spot on is when he argues that Ed Miliband stopped the headlong rush to war in Syria. Sadly this too is a re-writing of history. Dan Hodges eviscerates Mr Miliband in a piece for the Telegraph here, making it quite clear that Miliband was initially quite happy to vote for military action after Bashar Al Assad had used chemical weapons on a civilian population – only the second dictator to do so in fifty years – until his backbenchers started organising against him. He then introduced amendment after amendment to his conditions for supporting military action, all of which were accepted by the Government, whose own backbenchers were also organising against. Ed Miliband showed the type of leader he was by doing a reverse ferret and following his rebelling backbenchers into the no lobby in a show of party unity.

So when David Ellesmere says that Ed Miliband stands up to people in power I don’t really know what he means. The only time Ed has shown any backbone at all is when he stood against his brother for the party leadership. It seems he only stands up when he wants to seize power.

Culture Secretary blows into town to support Ben Gummer

Gummer-Selfie-with-Sajid-JavidTory Cabinet Minister Sajid Javid visited Ipswich today to boost the campaign of incumbent Ben Gummer, who is in the fight of his life to hold onto the seat against Labour’s council leader candidate David Ellesmere.

Mr Javid blew into town almost an hour late, after being delayed on his way from Norwich because the overhead wires were brought down by the wind. He visited a couple of shops on St Peter’s Street, answered a couple of questions from journalists, before posing for photographs – including a Gummer Selfie – with campaign volunteers.

He rushed off to meet the train back to London, facing a long trip back to the capital because of the ongoing rail problems caused by weather.

Sajid-Javid-&-Ben-Gummer-answer-journalists-questionsMr Gummer and Mr Javid didn’t face any tough questions about the claims the Tories made yesterday about Labour’s tax plans; nor did they have to explain why shopkeepers should vote for them when Labour’s business rates cut pledge is better for small businesses than the Tories business rate review.

That isn’t the point of these visits though. The real reason is to ensure that candidates like Mr Gummer, in marginal seats that the Tories absolutely have to win if they want Mr Cameron to continue as Prime Minister, can show the support they have right at the top of Government.

Loyalty is powerful in political parties, and incumbents who have shown loyalty to their party during the last five years can expect lots of visits from Cabinet level power brokers within their party. So when people ask why Ben Gummer has followed his party on almost every vote, part of it is because he wants doors to open when he goes to Ministers for a favour for Ipswich.

Mr Javid isn’t the first big hitter to visit during this election campaign – Caroline Flint came to support David Ellesmere, Labour’s candidate, yesterday. I doubt either of them will be the last.

Miliband turns out not to be such a millstone for Labour

So last night we had the first election “debate” between David Cameron and Ed Miliband. Miliband won the toss and decided to go second, meaning Cameron faced Jeremy Paxman, then a town hall style debate compered by Kay Burley. Then Miliband faced the town hall, followed by his own interview with Paxo.

My instinctive reaction afterwards was that Ed Miliband had won. While Cameron hadn’t put a foot wrong, and provided a polished and smooth performance, it came across as a little too polished and smooth. Where was the passion? Where was the man who felt he was fighting an election he could win?

The contrast with Miliband was stark. He came out of the blocks swinging, and knocked down a number of highly personal questions – such as whether his brother should have been the leader. As much as many socialists on Twitter felt that his filial relations are irrelevant, they have become so ingrained with his public profile that the reaction to Ed on the doorstep has been an issue for Labour; Ed? Oh yes, he’s the one who stabbed his brother in the back. That isn’t a public profile that persuades people to vote for him.

ICM’s flash poll for the Guardian indicates that I was wrong, and that the senior Tory who text me suggesting that Miliband was showing why he was a Mili-stone around the Labour neck was actually right. I really don’t think it was a car crash for Miliband; I expect that the fact the broadcasters are choosing to focus on his answer to the toughness question will help to bear that out in the coming days and weeks.

It was ironic that Paxman chose to use the example of a man he met on the tube. Mr Miliband was much mocked for choosing to introduce a series of men he’d met in public parks to illustrate his conference speech. But when asked if he was tough enough to go toe to toe with President Putin, he claimed “hell yeah I’m tough enough.”

The clearly rehearsed line plays well for TV, despite the fact he managed to trip over his own tongue in delivering it. Whether it will continue to play well once the comedians start to mock him for it – and absolutely they will – only time will tell.

Cameron acknowledged that he couldn’t live on a zero-hours contract, but highlighted that the Government had banned the exclusivity element, though Labour claim this doesn’t go far enough. He acknowledged that food bank use had grown enormously, but stuck to his risible claim that this was because more people are aware of the existence of them; people do not want to use food banks and they would only use them because they had to.

Cameron also admitted that he’d missed his targets on immigration and eliminating the deficit. This is important and he will have to address both of those missed targets again in the coming weeks. He will also need a better answer on VAT than the one he gave – the last election he ruled out raising it, and then put it up. His argument – that by being the Government he now knows what the state of the public finances are so knows he doesn’t need to raise VAT – doesn’t address why he made a pledge that he broke in the first place.

Did we learn anything new from last night’s non-debate debate? Well I didn’t, but I suspect some of those who watched will have been more surprised by Miliband than the Tories would have hoped. Having seen him on his sole visit to Ipswich, I was less surprised. He connects with people on an individual basis and I recall saying back then that if Labour could put him on every doorstep they would win.

While ICM say that Cameron won 54/46, the more important figure is in the detail of the poll. It says that of those voters who identified themselves as floating, 56% said that they now will vote Labour, while 30% will now definitely vote Conservative.

Round 1 to Labour, but there is a long way to go in this election.