IF you are having trouble understanding the outcome of the UK general election, you are not alone: The people have chosen, but we do not know what they wanted. Many voters thought the election was presidential, because that is how the campaign went, with US-style televised debates among the party leaders.
In fact, we elect a Member of Parliament (MP) to each constituency and then the MP leading the biggest party becomes Prime Minister: The executive is part of the legislature. The Conservatives now have the biggest number of MPs but not a majority, so we face a coalition for only the second time since WWII.
With a hung parliament, the tired joke that all politicians should hang is very relevant. Voters in a high turnout effectively spurned all the parties, in disgust at widespread expenses scandals, waste, lack of ideas and incompetence (fittingly, the election itself was incompetently run, plus fraud from postal voting, introduced by Labour at the last election in 2005).
It may seem amazing that the ruling Labour Party did not suffer a rout (it lost a quarter of its seats, retaining 258). Against a reviled government that lied to get us into the Iraq war, with a Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) appointed by his predecessor (Tony Blair) without a general election, in a financial crisis aggravated by Brownâ€™s long, long tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), how could the Conservative opposition not win? The Tories did get a 50% increase from 198 to 306, but no majority.
Now the king-maker is the small Liberal-Democrat party, whose clean-cut leader Nick Clegg got grandiose headlines for a week or so during the TV debates. Despite losing five seats, its 57 MPs now hold the balance in the House of Commons.
Convention and credibility require that the Lib-Dems support the biggest party, the Conservatives, but they can now bargain over their dream of proportional representation. This complicated indirect voting (for a list or party, not a person) used in many European countries would give the Lib-Dems a lot more seats (because their 23% of all voters are highly dispersed, with a small number in each constituency).
But convention and credibility are merely guidelines: Labourâ€™s own Macchiavelli, Peter Mandelson, said: â€œItâ€™s not the party with the largest number of seats that has first go â€” it is the sitting government.â€
The Conservatives got a big swing from Labour, but their failure to win outright against such an unpopular Prime Minister is embarrassing for leader David Cameron.
This young PR guru has never had a real job but he is not even great at PR, projecting the image of an off-duty-mortician with his uniform of black suit, white shirt and no tie.
As for policies, he offered only to do everything labour does but better, with a few tweaks here and there. The Conservatives offered very few conservative ideas and no major reform of the massive state sector inflated by Labour.
That client-base is partly why Labour kept so many votes: more than 30% of the population lives off the state and fears (mild) Conservative cuts. As private sector jobs fell by 1,440 a day last year, public sector jobs rose by 146 a day. As real workers got an average pay cut of 0.7%, the public sector got a 4.1%. rise.
More than 20% of all workers are employed by national or local government, while welfare pays another 8.5% (unemployed and sick) plus the uncounted number of private companies working exclusively for government, from garbage collectors to architects.
Actually, forget the details: public spending is 45.1% of Gross Domestic Product â€” slightly worse than the US â€” and that says it all. There will be horse-trading for a few days, but the likely outcome is a Conservatie-Lib-Dem coalition, with another election within a year (again, only a convention). Ideally, Cameron is forced to resign as Conservative leader for failing to win (the partyâ€™s fourth failure in a row, despite the 50% gain); a person who has worked in the real world takes over (ideally former leader William Hague, very credible and very sensible but not at all televisual); that Prime Minister then becomes re-electable with a majority after a yearâ€™s good performance.
Collaborating with the Conservatives should split the Lib-Dems between the libertarian free-market faction and the â€œsandalists,â€ the social-democrat majority. The Labour Party is already flat broke and another election would bankrupt it.
But predictions are always wrong, so watch this space. Or get a life.
The writer is a contributing editor of the quarterly conservative Salisbury Review, London
UK poll confused? You should be