For politicians, general elections are about power; for pollsters, professional reputations are at stake; but for bookmakers, elections are about winning and losing hard cash, and there will be between pounds 8m and pounds 10m bet on the election result, writes Millie Jenkins.

Since it is serious business, bookies retain academics, strategists and lobbyists to feed in the latest news, gossip and even the parties' secret polls. Ladbrokes does its own polls and has its people on the party battle-buses.

Ladbrokes' favourites have won eight out of the past nine elections (1970 was the year it got it wrong) and in 1992 it was the only bookie to make the Conservatives the (last-minute) favourite. Its latest odds on this election are on Labour winning at 1-6, with the Conservatives at 7-2 and the Liberal Democrats at 800-1.

Simon Clare, Ladbrokes' election betting manager, says the odds reflect what it thinks the outcome will be, not just the weight of punters' money: "We take a stance about the result. For example, we're getting a lot of bets on a Labour majority of 160-plus seats, but we think the polls are wrong and that it's going to be closer. Our favourite is still on an 81- 100 majority for Labour."

The odds are calculated so that Ladbrokes wins if Labour wins, but not if Labour wins too many seats.

But the odds can be changed by betting behaviour as well as expert advice. "If someone calls in and wants to put pounds 1,000 on and we see from our records that in 1992 they got it right, we'll start calling people to see what's going on. We have a lot of political commentators with accounts and if they all start backing a Labour majority of 100-plus, we'd think about shifting the odds."

Ladbrokes says people who bet on politics are a lot more astute than the average sports punter, and they bet higher. The average bet on the FA Cup is a fiver, but on the election it's pounds 100. The firm expects several last-minute bets of pounds 100,000. The biggest bets laid so far have been pounds 30,000 on Labour at 1-6 and pounds 7,000 on the Tories at 9-2.