The reasons are no doubt mixed, but I think you can identify three basic types.
1 There are the idealists – those who want to make the world better and believe their way is the right way.
2 There are the grubby-fingered ones, in it just for what they can get out of it. There probably aren’t quite as many of this type as most people think.
3 And there are those for whom it’s just a game. To be played to win – and never mind too much what happens after that. These people can be useful – or dangerous – depending on which of the other types they help into power with them.
Of the motley bunch we have to choose between this week (finally!) I suspect David Cameron is one of the game-players. We know that his boyhood ambition was “to be Prime Minister”. Whether winning the same game a second time has the same allure, who knows?
Boris Johnson would appear to be another of these. No doubt the other parties have them too.
All parties – certainly the well-established ones – undoubtedly have a few of the self-servers too. Those who are looking out for themselves, their families and friends.
I can think of a few who seem to be that type. For fairly obvious reasons I won’t name them.
By far the most interesting are the idealists, or ideologists, the conviction politicians. They are either the most dangerous, or the most inspiring, of the lot. They are those who do most good, or most harm, depending on how their outlook might match yours.
Passion and charisma can make them very dangerous indeed by altering other people’s outlook to match their own. They don’t follow the people’s will, they shape it.
Hitler was an idealist. So was Gandhi. Margaret Thatcher. Nye Bevan. I think Barack Obama is probably an idealist, in contrast to most holders of his office, though a rather compromised one.
The idealists in the last government – Michael Gove, Andrew Lansley – fortunately lacked charisma. They have mostly been pushed aside, or into the background. Of those still on show, George Osborne may be one.
Elsewhere, the real idealists are on the smaller teams – the leaders of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, all the Greens.
Ed Miliband may be one. If he has true convictions – and I think he has – he needs to find the courage of them.
Most of the ideals – and the idealists – in his party were swept away under Tony Blair. Their resurfacing in other colours is what has made this election a rainbow affair.
Blair himself is an anomaly. I have no doubt he has always considered himself to be an idealist. But that is just one of his delusions.
For a man obsessed with his own legacy, what a legacy he has.
In the Middle East, all the deadly chaos of a power vacuum. Not his doing alone, but he was a key player.
In Britain, a devolved Scotland and the apparent obliteration of Labour in one of its greatest former strongholds. The rise of the SNP is Blair’s doing at least as much as it is Alex Salmond’s or Nicola Sturgeon’s. He gave them their chance.
And it is why Miliband’s ambition to lead a government purely on Labour’s terms is surely doomed to failure. Too much of what should be in his manifesto is in the SNP and Green manifestoes instead.
Of course you can’t put your idealism into practice if you don’t win the game. Which has always been Labour’s biggest problem.
Who’ll win on Thursday? And will we know for sure on Friday?
History’s not much guide.
Most UK governments have been given at least two terms – so it should be David Cameron again. With or without a coalition partner.
On the other hand, no Prime Minister who went the full five-year distance – as Cameron committed himself to doing from the start – has won the ensuing election.
But in any case we’ve never had an election quite like this before. One which shows so thoroughly how unfit for purpose our first-past-the-post system is.
One voter on the radio the other day summed up the choice. It is, she said, between incompetence with good intentions and incompetence with bad intentions. Which seems about right.
What is certain is that – as ever – the outcome will be decided by a minority of voters in just 30-odd marginal constituencies. Which is undemocratic and crazy.