Randall & Rentoul unleashed: It's a mad, mad, mad electoral world

Don't just tune out the spin, the phoney baloney and the ersatz earnestness.Enjoy the democratic experience as our detectives debunk and decode
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Indy Politics

The Voters' Thesaurus

Change: alteration; something not the same; Conservative buzz word to be inserted into speeches, interviews and written material at every opportunity. No change: term used to convey parliamentary seat remaining in previous holder's hands; Labour's implied motto. Spare change: loose coinage, c. 2010, meaning word left over when Tory candidate has failed to insert the mandatory number of "changes" into interview. Ex-change: full and honest intercourse of ideas between candidates (Old English, now defunct); term conveying what Labour's policy used to be. "Keep the change": patronising expression used when giving small gratuity to member of service industry community; reaction of many voters to Conservative message.

"Good morning. We represent the Jacobite Party"

There was a time (say, around 1745) when these words would have had some force on the doorstep, especially if it was that of a croft shortly after the Duke of Cumberland's men had come canvassing. No longer. Hence, one supposes, the desperation with which the party has embarked on a venture unique in this election: it has offered the chance to be its candidate in one of 410 English constituencies on eBay. The upside, for potential bidders, is that the salary is £69,000, plus generous expenses. The downside is that you have to raise your own £500 deposit and sort out all the nominations and paperwork. But you will be the official Jacobite Party candidate. Just over three days remain. And the number of bidders is... none.

Policy of the week

Here's an interesting idea from the hustings in Wokingham, political home of John Redwood, Tory thinker of the unthinkable and mimer of the Welsh national anthem. His independent opponent, Mark Ashwell, has suggested politicians should take a lie detector test. Not bad, but does it go far enough? Why not electronic tagging – or, for that honesty-inducing touch (as recommended by the US extraordinary rendition team) truth serum, thumb screws, water-boarding, or a good old-fashioned session with the Anglepoise and a length of rubber hosepipe?

The Sceptical Voters' Guide to the week

Monday A senior party official is reported to have plotted to kill his leader. There is a frisson on anxiety among Labour supporters before they realise the story concerns the BNP. Nothing else of moment happens, the parties merely exchanging already well-worn jibes over NI and VAT.

Tuesday The two main rivals strike what they hope will be winning poses; Gordon Brown tells us he is "middle class from an ordinary home" (geddit?). David Cameron, surrounded by adoring party supporters, pledges to help what he calls "the Great Ignored". His list includes teachers, police and soldiers – people who, strangely, have not been out of the headlines for years. Brown then pays the first of his election visits, to an 83-year-old woman in her own home. It is the Queen. It is 2010 – and yet democracy needs her permission. With campaigning officially under way, Brown heads for a supermarket, factory, and another pensioner's home in Kent; Nick Clegg goes to Watford; and Cameron travels to a Birmingham hospital so he can mention his late son, Ivan.

Wednesday The last PMQs: a bacchanal of partisan shrieking, forced laughter at leaders' feeble jokes and name calling. It is like two rival gangs of primary schoolchildren baiting each other at playtime. Thus is set the intellectual tone for the next four weeks. More business leaders sign up to the Tory condemnation of a National Insurance rise. Two days later, scientists write to the papers in support of Labour. They said it would be the first internet election – will it instead turn out to be the first letter-writing one since 1886? John Prescott gets his bus on the road, while David Cameron heads to a bakery in Bolton. He makes a wet joke about buying a bread maker which falls totally flat. His team boasts that he has "air superiority" over Gordon Brown because he can afford to book executive jets at will. Is he quite the unerring communicator everyone claims? Brown starts hedging his bets with the promise of a referendum on voting reform.

Thursday Sir Michael Caine joins David Cameron as he announces plans for a National Citizen Service, offering kids two months' community work. He reminds his audience that while at Eton he not only wore the uniform of the cadet force, but also visited old people – though not, one hopes, at the same time. The press are invited to cover Samantha Cameron as she visits a charity in Leeds, but not when she stops off for lunch with her father at the family seat of Thealby Hall.

Friday The Guardian reports with horror Tory plans to ensure public sector bosses would earn no more than 20 times their lowest-paid worker. This is the end of civilisation as some of their readers know it – hopefully. The Tories, asked to explain how they would cut public spending, finally produce a vague list of possible "inefficiencies" to be tackled. Hmmm. The Lib Dems, meanwhile, say they will limit "profiteering" bank charges. If only the country could do the same.

Saturday The Conservatives finally reveal how they are going to recognise marriage in the tax system. In effect, by exclaiming, "That looks like a marriage; I claim my £3." By coincidence, Labour put up its very own married couple of cabinet ministers, Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, to front its early-morning news conference. The Lib Dems also announced their family policy, which seemed to consist of Nick Clegg's wife, Miriam.

Where are they now?

Chris Grayling: Where has the Tory home affairs spokesman been? Ever since a tape recording of him saying people running B&Bs in their homes should be allowed to refuse a bed to same-sex couples he has been strangely inconspicuous.

George Osborne: Where is he and his famous sneer? Last seen at Luton Airport on Tuesday, there are now concerns for his well-being. Has he been sent abroad? Simply mislaid?

Charles Clarke: Where is the great beast? Stuck in a lift? In a sushi bar? Or jammed in a restaurant doorway?

All sightings gratefully received.

Just fancy that

Research commissioned by Age UK (for obvious self-serving reasons) has turned up the fact that, in more than 300 parliamentary constituencies, the majority of those voting will be aged over 55. Star turn of this study, carried out by De Montfort University, Leicester, was the Dorset seat of Christchurch, where nearly 71 per cent of voters are liable to be over the 55-year-old mark. The MP there is Conservative Christopher Chope, aged 63, above.

Reader offer

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Most egregious use of a spouse

No 1: David Cameron. Two centuries of fighting for women's rights and the end result, as far as British democracy goes, is that stilted webcam footage of life at Cameron Towers, with pregnant Samantha acting as feed to casual Dave. It was the most sickening use of a wife since Cherie Blair claimed that she and Tony were at it five times a night. Thank heavens political webcams weren't around then.

Scenes from canvassing history

"Rob" of Ashburton, Devon, emails the BBC: "I stood in the 1987 general election. In Dartmouth, a lady came to the door with her young grandson, little Johnny, clasping her hand and wearing only a T-shirt. During our short chat I felt a dampness spreading through my trousers. Looking down, I was horrified to see that little Johnny was peeing down my leg."

TV highlight of the week

The BBC's Daily Politics show on Wednesday had the Conservatives' culture man Jeremy Hunt holding forth about the £11bn savings identified by the Tories to bankroll the reversal of Labour's proposed National Insurance increase:

Andrew Neil: Could you give us an example of one? [repeats]

Jeremy Hunt: I don't have chapter and verse here, but these are savings...

Andrew Neil: I'm asking for a single example of the £11bn efficiency [savings]. Just give me one.

Jeremy Hunt: I don't have them now. I've told you, I don't have them ...

Andrew Neil: You just can't give me an example...

Political anorak's quiz

1. What was the last general election not held on a Thursday?

a) 1886; b) 1959; c) 1929; d) 1931.

2. How big is Britain's deficit (within nearest £10bn)?

a) £167bn; b) £143bn; c) £452bn; d) £102bn.

3. Which prime minister fathered most children?

a) Tony Blair; b) Robert Peel; c) Earl Grey; d) Lloyd George.

4. In 2005, what percentage of the electorate did not vote for an elected candidate?

a) 28 per cent; b) 41 per cent; c) 17 per cent; d) 52 per cent.

Worthwhile human being of the week

No 1: Luke Wilkins. He was only 18 on 31 March, and yet has saved his wages from working part-time at McDonald's so he can stand as an independent in Erewash, Derbyshire. The business studies student says he is doing it to encourage more young people to get engaged with, and possibly involved in, politics. A man in tune with our paper's "One of the Above" campaign for voter participation. Bravo.

Election quotes

"If you want charisma, buy a ticket for the cinema. If you want someone to effectively manage the economy, then you will vote Labour" – Lord Kinnock, the former Labour leader.

"If I have to spend the second half of the election behind bars, so be it" – Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik who has attracted police attention after threatening to dismantle "troublesome" traffic lights in his Montgomeryshire constituency.

"Much of what you encounter in the next 30 days will be propaganda, and should be treated accordingly. Your intelligence will be insulted in a most insolent fashion. The truth will be kept from you on every possible occasion" – political commentator Simon Heffer.

"Many MPs with questionable expenses records have not been deselected by their parties. It is up to the voters to complete the process" – former Independent MP Martin Bell.

"Maybe reading horoscopes is a bit like voting Tory. People clearly do it, but no one likes to admit it" – Jemima Khan.

"The baby face doesn't worry me. It's the baby mind that does" – John Prescott, former deputy prime minister, on David Cameron.

Great moments in political history

May 2005, general election in the Cardiff North constituency. The Vote For Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket candidate, Catherine Taylor-Dawson, polled a new British electoral record of precisely one vote. She might have doubled her tally, but she was registered to vote elsewhere.

Playing at politics: Business leaders

So multimillionaire, bonus-festooned, deep pension-potted business leaders, what was it that first attracted you to the Conservative Party? For some reason lost on us, the fact that sundry chief executives (86 so far, and more if the busy ring-around merchants at Tory HQ have anything to do with it) seem to regard a rise in National Insurance as a bad thing was regarded as news this week. Their ostensible motive was to warn the nation against addressing the mess we're all in with a modest increase in this relatively progressive tax. But might more visceral motives have been at work? Might the question they asked themselves have been more along these lines: Would you, when considering how to vote, prefer: a) a National Insurance rise, which would cost you personally, and also your company's bottom line (and therefore your bonus); or b) a vague promise about cutting waste and a much firmer one to lift death duties on the first £1m of an estate, thereby increasing your potential wealth?

Surprisingly, they went for b). Could this have anything to do with the vantage point from which they view the world, a position not unrelated to their remuneration? For the record, we append some of the salaries of the men who so thoughtfully put all us non-bonused saps right on the Great NI Debate:

Ben Gordon, chief executive, Mothercare: total package worth £1.38m in 2008-09

Justin King, chief executive, Sainsbury plc: received almost £5m in 2008

Sir Christopher Gent, GlaxoSmithKline, £650,000 (retired from Vodafone with a pension of £660,000 a year)

Sir Anthony Bamford, chairman of JCB, estimated personal wealth (together with his wife): £950m

And so on.

How it works

No 1: Opinion polls

You can't predict elections by asking just 1,000 people. Yes, you can: if they are a good enough sample, their answers can be adjusted – or weighted – so that the sample matches the total electorate by sex, age, class and, in YouGov's case, newspaper readership. The findings should be accurate to within two percentage points 95 per cent of the time. The polls had problems in the past with Labour supporters being more willing to take part and being less likely actually to vote, but in 2005 they were pretty accurate and in the most recent big Labour-Tory test YouGov got Boris Johnson's margin over Ken Livingstone right in London 2008.

The polls are all over the place/public opinion is unusually volatile. No, they aren't, and no, it isn't. You would expect the figure for the support for any party to vary by four points (two up, two down) in 19 polls out of 20 carried out using the same method. Hence the difference between two parties' share of the vote – the figure for the Tory lead – could vary by up to eight points even if people's views remain unchanged. Most of the time, polls from the same company tend not to vary that much.

But the Conservatives are spending a fortune in the marginal seats where the election will be decided, so the national polls are useless. Money can make a difference, but not that much. An Ipsos-Mori poll in the marginals last week suggested, like previous surveys, that the Conservatives are doing better in these seats than nationally. This could have the same effect as adding one or two points to the Tory lead in national polls.

So the seven-point lead in your Poll of Polls means David Cameron is sitting pretty; why is everyone talking about a hung parliament? Because a seven-point lead, or even a nine-point lead, may not be enough for the Conservatives to win a majority in the Commons. Two reasons: even after new boundaries, Labour constituencies tend to be smaller than Tory ones and so need fewer votes to win; plus Tory voters behave differently, tending to come out to vote in safe seats where Labour supporters tend not to bother. That is why it is possible for Labour to win more seats than the Tories with fewer votes.

Who is going to win, then? Whichever party wins most seats is the short answer. That will be the Conservatives if their share of the vote is five percentage points ahead of Labour's. The problem is that their average seven-point lead in the polls could conceal a systematic bias one way or the other. If so, it is unlikely to be more than a few points either way – but, this time, a small difference could make a big difference to the result. Different polls suggest anything from Labour being the largest party in a hung parliament to a small majority for Cameron. Meanwhile, there are the "events" of the campaign itself.