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Gary Younge
You used to know where you were with election night. Not this year

As chaos goes it was all very British. Voters queueing in an orderly fashion for hours in some areas only to be turned away from polling stations that had run out of time or ballot papers; a parade of bejewelled municipal functionaries delivering astonishing results in deadpan tones; a constitutional wrangle in a nation without a constitution; a race between party leaders to see who would claim the right to visit the Queen and ask her permission to do the people's business.

No one claimed victory but almost everyone could point to someone else's defeat. David Cameron did not have the majority he sought, said Labour; Labour had lost its mandate, said the Conservatives. When Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said that it had been a disappointing night for his party, everybody agreed with Nick.

You used to know where you were with election night. First the actual polls closed, then came the exit polls and then, after several hours of conjecture, the final tallies were declared in town halls across the land. Individually these announcements would come as a blur; but collectively they painted a picture. You could crash in the wee hours to the sound of presenters making projections with the help of graphics and wake up to see the rest of the country finally coloured in. By lunch the victor would roll up to Downing Street and it would all be over.

Not this time. As the first results came in the pundits kept hoping they were watching a Seurat taking shape. An array of individual points, dotted around the country, that would eventually produce a coherent electoral canvas. But expectations that a pattern would emerge at some point proved mistaken. Instead they ended up with Dalí. Inexplicable things happened in strange places that defied any consistent rationale.

The Tories had Eastleigh, which was 11th on their target list, in their sights, but failed to take it after they suffered a 3% swing to the Lib Dems. But then they took Montgomeryshire from the Lib Dems, which was on nobody's radar, with a 13.2% swing. Labour held their own in Scotland; the Tories made impressive gains in Wales.

To even claim these were regional trends was a stretch. Labour lost Brighton Pavilion to the Greens (the party's first MP) but the two adjacent constituencies of Kemptown and Hove to the Tories. In north Wales Labour lost Aberconwy to the Tories, while Arfon, on one side, went to Plaid and Clwyd West, on the other, remained Conservative.

True there were Labour losses throughout (its only gains were Blaenau Gwent, Glasgow East and Dunfermline and West Fife) and the Lib Dems won several and lost even more. There were too many exceptions to claim any rules. It was as though the United Kingdom were not one single political unit engaged in a national electoral contest but 649 separate contests emerging from their own discrete electoral tussles.

Commentators strained to find something symbolically significant in vain. It was a night without emblem, totem or metaphor.

So there was no Portillo moment: no single result, constituency or defining moment that summed up the night. True former home secretary Jacqui Smith, tainted by the expenses scandal, was ousted; but the no less tainted Hazel Blears remained. Ed Balls, the Tories' big potential prize, went into the dawn with a smile on his face and his seat intact.

The biggest shock of the night, Democratic Ulster Unionist party leader Peter Robinson's defeat against the Alliance in Belfast East, was a private calamity that told us more about Robinson than it did about Northern Ireland, let alone the country at large.

Meanwhile the election we thought we were watching, indeed the only story of the election period – the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats – ended up to be a complete chimera. The electorate may have proved volatile, but it was hardly adventurous. Cleggmania proved to be precisely that – a manic episode in the national conversation that bore no relation to events.

Meanwhile, as though on a split screen, Greece burned and markets nosedived. As the uncertainties of the night became clear the pound started to tumble. If the people are undecided the traders seemed to have made up their mind that a hung parliament in the run-up to economic austerity would not get their vote.

Electoral unpredictability was compounded by logistical incompetence. In some parts of the country people were literally denied the right to vote. At polling stations in Hackney, east London, would-be voters staged a sit-in after polling officers tried to turn them away; students in the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's constituency of Sheffield Hallam attempted to stop staff taking ballot boxes to the count after they were turned away.

Similar stories could be heard in Birmingham, Chester, Lewisham, Manchester and Wembley.

After presidential style debates and an attempt to rebrand first Clegg and then Cameron as change-agents in the style of Barack Obama, it was perhaps only fitting that they should end up with these scenes that owe more to Florida in the 2000 presidential election: a tight contest with electoral irregularities. After that debacle produced an inconclusive result Bill Clinton said: "The people have spoken, but it will take a while to determine exactly what they have said."

It was a phrase that was borrowed repeatedly this morning by candidates fending off speculation while the permutations shifted even as they were on screen. But this time when they said: "It's going to be a long night and we'll just have to wait and see" they weren't stalling until their leader declared victory or defeat. They actually meant it.

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