Last men standing, last men down: the fate of two far-left councillors and a mayoral candidate in yesterday’s British local elections

European Politics, Politics

/Disclaimer/: I am not pretending that the events described in this post have a broader political relevance; they are merely meant to satisfy a political anorak’s curiosities.

The last communist councillor in Scotland?

On a random Google trip a number of years ago, I was reading up about the long historical tradition of elected communists in Fife. West Fife was one of only two constituencies in the UK that ever elected a Communist Party MP. And not just once either: Willie Gallacher was the constituency’s MP from 1935 to 1950.

The only other UK constituency to ever elect a Communist Party MP was London’s Mile End, which elected Phil Piratin in 1945, though he only lasted one term. In the same year, Communist candidate Harry Pollitt failed by only 972 votes to take the Rhondda East constituency in Wales. Rhondda, a mining town, was known as “Little Moscow” – but there were “Little Moscows” in Scotland too. (There’s even one in West-Germany, called Mörfelden).

[EDIT: Commenter ResoluteReader chimed in to correct me: whereas Gallacher and Piratin were the only communists ever elected as MPs since World War 2, two communist MPs were elected earlier on: Shapurji Saklatvala in Battersea North and Walton Newbold in Motherwell. Both were elected in the 1922 elections and then defeated again in the next general elections a year later, in 1923; but Saklatvala returned to parliament in 1924, before being defeated again in the next elections in 1929. If the Wikipedia articles about the two are to be trusted, however, at least Saklatvala had been endorsed by the Labour Party as its candidate as well when she was elected; the two articles disagree about whether the same was true for Newbold. In either case, the Labour Party fielded no opponent against either Saklatvala (in neither of her winning runs) or Newbold. This makes their cases substantively different from Gallacher's and Piratin's, who both had to defeat Labour as well as Liberal and/or Conservative opponents to get into the House of Commons.]

Memorial for volunteers from West Fife who fought in the Spanish Civil War

What I got to reading up about, that particular insomniac night, was whatever happened to that once notorious Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Long story short, its leadership opted for reform in the wake of perestroika and eventually disbanded the party, which in turn left various hardline groups within the party outraged and founding or re-establishing separate parties claiming the CPGB’s heritage: the Communist Party of Great Britain (Provisional Central Committee) and the Communist Party of Britain.

Anyway, the CPGB’s dissolution must have left a couple of local elected councillors high and dry. At some point I noticed that in 1996, a candidate for a group called the Democratic Left polled 30% in the Scottish Hill of Beath local government by-election. The Democratic Left turned out to be the name of a now long-defunct group set up by the reformist last CPGB General secretary. So I read up about Hill of Beath, which predictably turned out to be an old mining village, though the mine has long closed. There used to be a interesting-looking walking route description online about the old pits there, and I also came across this amusing bit of memoir about a Hill of Beath childhood which features a commemorative Lenin bust. I soon found out, via a link that’s long gone offline, that in nearby Ballingry/Lochore a Communist had actually still been elected in 1990 to the Fife regional council. So now, whenever there are local elections in Scotland, out of sheer curiosity, I always check out what’s happening in Fife.

So what did I find this time? Across Scotland, there were still candidates running for the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), of course, which a mere nine years ago won 7% of the vote Scotland-wide before the whole party fell apart over Sheridan’s scandals. But the party appears to have won all of one council seat this year: Jim Bollan’s on the West Dunbartonshire council. I was looking for something more obscure than that, however: actual communists.

Scotland's last communist councillor?

The Guardian’s results page for Scottish councils lists no SSP candidates for Fife, but does say that 4 “Independent/Other” candidates were elected, down from 6. Hm. The Fife council website offers more detailed results by ward, but for the overall council it just says that 3 “Independents” were elected, drawing 3.8% of the vote. So I went looking by ward, and this one seemed like a possible suspect: the “The Lochs” ward elected a Labour councillor, an SNP councillor, and one William Clarke, party: Other. This is Cllr. William Clarke. But who is he?

Former union official Graham Stevenson runs a website that has many CPGB-related historical resources, including a set of communist biographies. One of them is about Willie Clarke, our man from The Lochs, who turns out to have been first elected as a local councillor for the CPGB in 1973, and has ever since served on local councils: the Lochgelly District Council, the Fife Regional Council, the Fife Council. He must have been that communist who was elected in Ballingry/Lochore in 1990 too. Says the bio:

Willie, having spent his working life amongst miners and playing a very important role within the voluntary groups in the areas has become highly regarded and respected within his community. His extraordinary success at the ballot box bears that out. [..]

After the demise of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1992, Councillor Clarke sought re-election under their banner of the Communist Party of Scotland. In 2002, he was elected with 1,291 first preference votes, under a new system, or 95% of the vote in Lochgelly in 2003 in The Lochs ward, more or less the same area he has always represented.

Together with another former Communist councillor, the self-styled ‘Democratic Left’ candidate, Alex Maxwell, they have combined in the form of ‘the Left Alliance’, a designation they have assigned to their two man group on the 78 seat Fife council.

So there were two of them? Yep – Alex Maxwell was the guy who got that 30% in the Hill of Beath by-election back in ’96. The same site says:

He is the author of an autobiographical book about the Fife Region, once a strong-hold of British Communism, `ChicagoTumbles’. Although counting himself still as a Communist, as which he was elected a local councillor, Maxwell is not currently a member of any existing party. He has continued to sit as a self-designated “Democratic Left” councillor on Fife Regional Council, having been a member of the authority for a very long time. [..]

Maxwell represents Cowdenbeath Central; he is a former Town Councillor for Cowdenbeath and a District Councillor for Dunfermline, Fife since 1995, representing Cowdenbeath’s Ward 8. In May 1996, in a County Council by-election in the Hill of Beath ward, Maxwell took over 30% of the vote, in what had previously been a rock-solid Labour ward. [..]

In the Fife council elections of May 2007, 78 wards were reduced to 23 with three or four councillors to sit in each ward. Maxwell received 1350 first preference votes, by far the highest number, with other successful candidates being spread across the establishment parties.

But why doesn’t he show up in this year’s results, then? Alas, Google cache still has the backup of a local news story from last month: “Three retiring councillors from the Cowdenbeath Area Committee were given a warm send-off from the last meeting before the elections by chairman Willie Clarke,” and they included Maxwell.

So .. is Willie Clarke, one of three councillors elected in The Lochs ward for the Fife local council, the last Scottish communist standing, in elected office at least?

Erasing the last of the Militants: Dave Nellist defeated in Coventry

The Guardian’s election results page for English local councils says that the “Socialists” lost their lone councillor among Coventry’s 54 council members. This rang a bell, since I half-remembered something from some other random Googling about locally elected English far-lefties, a few years ago. (Yes, I do a lot of random Googling).

Dave Nellist's old-time Marxist religion

Indeed, Wikipedia comes to the rescue: the man who lost his local council seat yesterday was no less than the once-famous/notorious Militant politician Dave Nellist, who was an MP from 1983 til 1992, when he was expelled from the Labour party. After he was expelled, he ran for his seat as an independent Labour candidate and got a decent 29% against the winning official Labour candidate’s 33%. On subsequent successive general election runs, however, he remained stuck at 4-7%.

Instead, Nellist and his friends from the Trotskyite Socialist Party focused on the local Coventry council. By 2006, the Socialist Party won all three seats of the heavily deprived St. Michael’s ward.

This was a notable bit of far-left trivia, since this ward was one of only two across the entire UK in which the Socialist Party’s brand of Trotskyism won any local council seats. The other one was Telegraph Hill in London Lewisham. That’s how I ended up on this particular Google trip in the first place, actually: I’d dug into the 2006 local election results for London and noticed that Telegraph Hill was, among 624 London wards, the one with the largest share of votes (50.6%) going to parties to the left of the three mainstream ones – the Trots, running under the Socialist Alliance banner, won 35% of the vote and the Greens 16%. (I actually hopped a suburban train to Telegraph Hill last time I was in London to check out what kind of neighbourhood it was. It’s a nice place.)

Even the SP’s local success was not to last though, as I already suspected when, at the time, I ended up reading about a massive urban regeneration project in Coventry’s Hillfields neighbourhood, which is within the St. Michael’s ward and would presumably bring yuppies into the area. As it turns out, Nellist’s Socialist Party colleagues in Coventry were defeated in the local elections of 2007 and 2010, respectively. The two SP councillors in London’s Telegraph Hill were kicked out in 2010 too, which appeared largely due to turnout being twice as high as usual – I think because the local elections were held simultaneously with the national ones that year, which benefited Labour.

And now, although the vote count was close with the Labour candidate winning by 1,673 votes to Nellist’s 1,469 and Nellist actually got more votes than last time, he is gone too – even from the local stage, ten years after he disappeared from Westminster.

Militant legacy in Liverpool, spurned as well

But wasn’t there another Socialist Party member and former Militant leader running for something this year? Yes. Liverpool voted for its first elected mayor this year. Labour’s Joe Anderson handily won the race with a whopping 59% of the race. Among the losers, in fifth place: Tony Mulhearn, running on a Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) ticket, got 4,792 votes, or 4.86% of the vote.

Tony Mulhearn, still protesting cuts

Tony Mulhearn was President of the Liverpool District Labour Party back in the 1980s, and a leading figure in the city council’s volatile fight with Thatcher’s government at the time. Militant was in control of Liverpool’s Labour majority back then, and it set a course for conflict in a bitter budgeting crisis when its councillors refused to make any of the cuts which Thatcher’s reduction of city budgets made necessary. The Militant leaders instead insisted that refusing to pass a budget was the best way to force the national government to give in and fund the needed resorces after all. When Thatcher refused and Liverpool’s money ran out, the council was forced to abruptly sack hundreds of city workers and cease city services, leaving streets filled with rubbish. In a particularly weird part of the story, the city had to rent taxi cabs to deliver termination letters to city employees.

I should warn that the above paragraph is from memory. At some point I spent too much time reading through various accounts of these events, some lauding the city council’s principled resistance against Thatcher, others blaming it for chaos engulfing the city, but I’m done digging links back up for now. In any case, the whole episode played a crucial role in the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock deciding to clamp down on the Militant tendency once and for all, eventually leading to Nellist being shown the door too.

It has not been forgotten either. When the Guardian gave each mayoral candidate the space to lay out his/her case, Mulhearn’s contribution evoked how, back in his time, “the Liverpool Labour council .. took on Thatcher and won £60m for the city from that government,” whereas now, “the coalition government is much weaker than Thatcher was, and yet Joe Anderson’s Labour council has not taken them on. [..] Far from standing by the people of Liverpool, Anderson and his party have sided with the ConDem axe men.” But at least one reader remembered things a little differently:

You are no champagne socialist, I’ll grant you that, but I remember your days back in the 80s, I was at school in Liverpool then. Or at least I should have been, our whole class was always getting sent home as your mismanagement of the schools and political brinkmanship with the livelihoods of your workers led to massive levels of absenteeism amongst the teachers, the buildings, facilities and equipment declined by the day, basic council services weren’t delivered, the streets piled up with rubbish whilst your binmen played football in the park and you, Degsie and your gang of brownshirts went around threatening and physically intimidating anybody who dared to object to your tactics.

I’ll never forgive nor forget you for the damage you did to the lifechances of people like myself who were approaching adulthood then. Small wonder that so few of my school generation live in Liverpool now, for the damage your regime did to economic life in the area. The last thing the city needs, after two decades of slow recovery, is you lot rearing your ugly heads again.

I’m no Tory, I’ve plenty enough issues with them going back to that era, and I am appalled by the severity of the cuts applied to Liverpool by the current government. But nobody should be under any illusion about where your style of leadership will take the city. We’ve been there before and we shouldn’t forget.

That comment, in turn, triggered a flurry of much more favourable recollections. “Liverpool in the 80s was a beacon of hope for the working class and at the time it was more isolated than it would be today,” wrote one counter-commenter. “The Tories, let’s remember, wanted ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool. Labour transformed the fabric of the city [..]. Many Liverpudlians have reason to be glad of the Labour council as they are still living in those council houses – Liverpool built more than the rest of the country put together,” wrote another. “The Liverpool 47 stood up to the Tories and fought for the people of Liverpool,” wrote a third, crediting Mulhearn and his colleagues for “6,300 families rehoused from tenements, flats and maisonettes [..], 4,800 houses and bungalows built, 7,400 houses and flats improved, [..] £10million spent on school improvements, [..] three new parks built, rents frozen for five years”.

True or not, it’s twentyfive years later now, and none of that is apparently worth more than 4.9% of the vote, even in once-Militant Liverpool.

When reds turn to green (and not necessarily the ecological kind)

No, if you like your politics protest-flavored and socialist red, the traditional far left offers little solace. The only comfort for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which sponsored Nellist’s and Mulhearn’s runs, is that two other TUSC candidates regained local council seats they’d lost last year. In Wallsall in the Midlands, a candidate from the local Democratic Labour Party, a group of far-left socialists led by “Citizen Dave” who were expelled from the Labour Party in the late 90s and recently joined TUSC, won back a council seat after having previously served from 2007-2011; and in Preston, Lancashire, a candidate from that better known British Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), won back a council seat after previously serving from 2003-2011.

Neither of the two Socialist Party candidates running for constituency seats in the London Assembly got more than 2%. A seemingly new group called People Before Profit (possibly inspired by the energetic Irish group of the same name [EDIT: A commenter has weighed in to say this was not the case]) did a little better:  its colourful candidate Barbara Raymond received 5.2% of the vote in her failed run in Lewisham for such a London Assembly seat. That’s about it, though.

Respect campaign, Bradford

Instead, you’d want to look at more unorthodox movements. George Galloway’s Respect coalition, fresh off Galloway’s own by-election victory in Bradford West last month which saw him return to the UK parliament after two years, won five local council seats in Bradford yesterday. That’s still just 5 out of the 30 seats that were up for grabs this year, and just 5 of 90 seats on the council overall (Labour has 44 or 45). But it got them plenty of press, since one of the scalps they took was of the Labour Party’s incumbent council leader, as three recounts confirmed, leading Galloway to crow that Respect had “taken the head off the rotten fish that is the Bradford city council”. The Bradford local campaign also drew attention by allegations of physical assaults. A LibDem candidate and a local LibDem MP both made police complaints saying they’d been harrassed by Respect campaigners, and the MP in question compared Respect with the BNP, saying “we got rid of them and we’ll get rid of these thugs too.” Vice versa, a Respect campaigner said he had been assaulted by Labour supporters.

The success of Respect in Bradford is rooted in strong support from the local Muslim community, just like it had been in London’s Eastend when Galloway was first elected as Respect MP in the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency. All five newly elected councillors appear to be Muslim. Video footage of Respect’s islamic-green battle bus apparently showed Respect campaigners calling their Labour counterparts “criminals who have murdered a million Iraqis”. The local Respect campaign also came with its own hip-hop track, “Bradford Spring”.

Respect did not run candidates in Birmingham, where its candidate Salma Yaqoob got a quarter of the vote when she ran for MP in the Birmingham Hall Green constituency in 2010. Instead, Respect supporters in the largest city of the Midlands should this year vote for Green Party candidates, Yaqoob had said last month. They didn’t listen: Labour won 29 of the 40 seats that were up for grabs this year, and the Green Party none. The electorates which the Greens and Respect appeal to are just too different altogether.

Leanne Wood, Mike Moore

There is one more, probably unexpected place a far left afficionado might look: Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party. Plaid’s party colour is also green rather than red, but they elected a new party leader just two months ago, and Leanne Wood is a little different from the previous leaders of a party originally associated with romantic nationalism and a fervour to keep the Welsh language alive. She doesn’t even speak Welsh fluently. She’s from the region’s proletarian, Labour-friendly south rather than the more rural expanses further north; she very effectively used social media in her leadership campaign; and she’s a feminist, an anti-war activist, a socialist, and a republican. (She was once ordered to leave the Welsh Assembly after she called the Queen “Mrs. Windsor”). In fact, Wood is from Rhondda, Wales’ own former “Little Moscow”.

Unfortunately, Plaid fared rather poorly yesterday. With Labour romping home across much of Wales, Plaid had to concede some 41 of its 199 previous council seats. In Wood’s native Rhondda, Plaid actually lost half of its 18 seats, with Labour increasing its share from 48 to 60 (and the Tories holding just 1). Still, the 158 council seats Plaid has left is a hell of a lot more than Respect, TUSC and all the other left-of-Labour socialists together could hope to collect in many years. Even the Green Party, which looks set to win an additional 11 seats to get a total of 40 across England and Wales, doesn’t come close.

Labour, meanwhile? It seems set to win an extra 800+ seats or so yesterday alone, and will have well over 2,000 council seats across England and Wales after these elections. Even with the newly fragmented British electorate, everyone else on the left is just tinkering on the margins.


Berlin: polls, pirates and the electoral geography of last weekend’s elections

European Politics, Politics

There were state elections in Berlin, the capital of Germany and one of three city states among Germany’s 16 states, last weeekend. The results were somewhat surprising and fairly pleasing, and since I made a couple of maps that I have no place to put, I thought I’d revive our old blog.

Berlin: The Result

Official preliminary end results, courtesy of the Landeswahlleiter:

Social-Democrats (SPD)      28,3%   (-2.5%)
Christian-Democrats (CDU)   23,4%   (+2.1%)
Greens                      17,6%   (+4.5%)
Left Party                  11,7%   (-1.7%)
Pirate Party                 8,9%   (+8.9%)
NPD (extreme-right)          2,1%   (-0.5%)
Free-market liberals (FDP)   1,8%   (-5.8%)
Animal Protection Party      1,5%   (+0.7%)
pro-Germany                  1,2%   (+1.2%)
"Freedom" (far-right)        1,0%   (+1.0%)
The Greys (pensioners)       xxx    (-3.8%)
WASG (left-wing)             xxx    (-2.9%)
Others                       2.5%   (-1.2%)

In all, 69.3% for left-of-centre parties, 29.7% for the right, and the remainder for hard-to-classify parties like the Alliance for Innovation and Justice (BIG), which received 0.5% but over 10% in some precincts (see below), and appears to be a conservative Muslim party.

Regarding that 69% (oh, juicy) for the left, there’s a certain joy in just exclaiming: “hey, it’s Berlin!”. But even for Berlin this is an unusual result. In 2006 and 2001, the main leftwing parties pooled about 60% of the vote, and in 1999 only some 50%.

Basic backgrounds

The Social-democratic win seems largely due to the personal popularity of Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who was the center of a campaign largely focused on appealing to a kind of feel-good local patriotism. The party’s slogan was “Understanding Berlin,” which was also a bit of a dig against the Greens, who had parachuted one of their national party leaders, Renate Kunast, into the race. Kunast decided to challenge Wowereit at a time when polls suggested a neck-and-neck race between the two parties, with the once-dominant Christian-Democrats fading into third place. But Wowereit seems to have easily won the election campaign, with the last few polls showing his SPD at some 30% of the vote, the CDU at just over 20% and the Greens at just under 20%.

Some pundits have blamed Kunast’s dogged aura of ambition and overly slick campaign, which proved an ill fit for challenging Wowereit, whom the New York Times once described as ”charming, sociable and openly gay” and “a cuddly symbol of Berlin’s openness and tolerance”. At least as important, however, is probably how Kunast’s refusal to rule out a coalition government with the right-wing CDU chased parts of the Greens’ traditional alternative-lefty electorate into the arms of the Pirates.

All that said, compared to five years ago the Greens actually won votes, and the SPD lost some. It’s actually the Greens’ best result in unified Berlin yet. It’s just that at a time that the Greens poll at around 20% nationally, getting less than that in the country’s Mecca of alternative culture is distinctly underwhelming.

Despite their rivalry, the SPD and Greens still look likely to form a coalition government now, replacing the previous “red-red” coalition of Social-democrats and Leftists which no longer has a majority. But due to the surprise success of the Pirates, the two parties have ended up with an unexpectedly narrow majority of 76 to 73 seats. The two parties are sharply divided about the extension of a major highway, and theoretically the Social-democrats could still opt for a more ample majority government with the CDU instead. That would leave the entire opposition in the state parliament to the government’s left, however, and would probably be frowned on by the national SPD, which is keen to unambiguously set the course for a red-green government after the next federal elections.

Meanwhile, the digital-rights Pirate Party has easily harvested the most international headlines with its shock success. If you don’t remember, the Pirates drew a fair bit of attention when a Pirate Party received 7% of the Swedish vote in the 2009 European Parliament elections. Subsequent electoral gains have been scarce, however: in the 2010 national elections in Sweden, for example, the Pirate Party received just 0.7% of the vote. Pirate Parties did win a number of municipal council seats in Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and Switzerland, and the German Pirate Party received 2% of the vote in both the 2009 German national elections and 2011 elections in the states of Baden-Württemberg and Hamburg, campaigning on opposition to new data retention and Internet filtering policies. But this result is easily the Pirate Parties’ biggest coup since they first broke through.

The result of the Left Party – a coalition of East-German ex-communists and West-German disgruntled trade unionists and other leftwingers – is a far cry from the 20+% which the ex-communist PDS received ten years ago. Especially in its core East-Berlin constituency, the party’s support has plummeted: it went from 48% of the East-Berlin vote ten years ago to 23% now. That’s the worst the post-communists have done there in state elections since the unification of Germany. The party’s result is also worse in comparison to 2006 than it may look at first sight: the Left Party has absorbed the WASG since the last elections, so you should really compared its result now to their pooled results five years ago.

The Left’s decline could have various reasons. The WASG voters from 2006 seem to not have made the transition to the Left Party, and the Left lost relatively many voters to the Pirates. Having been  Wowereit’s junior government partner for the past ten years, the Leftists have lost much of the critical left-wing profile they combatively honed in the 90s. Or who knows – maybe the eroding numbers for the Left could also be a sign that “Ostalgia,” and the resentment which the city’s “Ossis” feel of the know-it-all yuppies from the Western half of the city in particular, are fading. It’s been a while since the battle over the traffic light men.

The extreme-right NPD, which is opposed to funding for commemorations of fascism, made waves with election posters that subtly featured the party’s leader on a motorbike and the slogan “Giving gas”, which the party’s activists made sure to plaster near synagogues and the like. It lost some support, however, getting 1.6% of the vote in West-Berlin and 2.9% in East-Berlin (down from 4.0%).

For far more interesting information about these elections, check out the Berlin post on the ever reliable World Elections blog.

East vs West

There is still a massive difference between the voting behaviour in West-Berlin and East-Berlin, but it has gotten a lot smaller over the past ten years, thanks to the implosion of the post-communists in East-Berlin.

SPD CDU Greens Left+WASG
Pirates FDP Others

West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost West Ost
2011 28.0 28.8 29.5 14.2 20.4 13.5 4.3 22.6 8.1 10.1 2.3 1.2 7.4 9.6
2006 31.4 29.8 27.7 11.4 14.8 10.5 6.9 31.4 - - 9.3 4.9 9.9 12.0
2001 33.7 23.2 30.8 12.4 11.1 5.9 6.9 47.6 - - 12.8 5.3 4.7 5.6
1999 25.2 17.8 49.3 26.9 12.1 6.4 4.2 39.5 - - 2.8 1.1 6.4 8.3
1995 25.5 20.2 45.4 23.6 15.0 10.0 2.1 36.3 - - 3.4 1.1 8.6 8.8
1990 29.5 32.1 49.0 25.0 8.2 11.4 1.1 23.6 - - 7.9 5.6 4.3 2.3

Data 1990-2001:
Data 2006:
Data 2011:

Polls and Pirates

The Pirate party easily outdid all but the very last poll, which was mocked as unrealistic at the time by political enthusiasts. The Greens, the free-market liberals of the FDP and especially the Social-democrats, on the other hand, did worse than the polls had suggested. Some SPD voters may have started taking their party’s victory for granted and not bothered to come out, while a few FDP voters may have switched to the CDU when they saw that their party was unlikely to cross the 5% electoral threshold. (The CDU was the only other party to outperform the polls, if only by a sliver.)   It was undoubtedly the Pirates’ success that did the most to keep the other parties’ vote lower than expected though.

An analysis of voter ‘traffic’ by pollster Infratest dimap suggests that the Pirates primarily rallied non-voters (23,000) and voters of other minor parties (22,000). In addition, however, the Pirates won some 17,000 voters from the Greens, some 14,000 from the Social-democrats, and 13,000 from the Left. Those 22,000 voters that the Pirates won from other minor parties are interesting, by the way. The two main minor parties last time that did not take part this year were the Greys – a party for the elderly – and the WASG, which received some 40,000 votes. Since Pirate Party voters are the youngest of any party’s, it’s unlikely that they got much cross-over support from the Greys, so that would suggest that these 22,000 largely come from the WASG. In fact, the Infratest dimap analysis suggests just a net 2,000 voters going from “other parties” in 2006 to the Left Party now.

Argh! The cost of success

The Pirates have won 15 seats – which is good, because they didn’t have more than 15 candidates on their city-wide list.  In fact, they will have to forego on taking up a number of seats they won in the local district assemblies, because they didn’t have enough candidates listed.

One poignant case in question is the district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, where the Pirates did best. They won nine seats in the district assembly, which is enough to qualify them for one of the five positions (Stadtrat) on the district administration, which apparently are appointed proportionally. But first off, the Pirates had only eight candidates on its district list, so they can not fill one of their seats at all. Moreover, three further Pirates have been elected to both the Berlin city parliament and the F’hain-Kreuzberg district assembly, and they will have to choose which of the two offices to accept. In order to fill all of the Pirates’ 15 seats in the city parliament, all the double-electeds will have to give that job priority to the district-level one. That seems like an easy choice, except that if the three double-electeds from F’hain-Kreuzberg make that choice too, their caucus in the district assembly shrinks to five … and they lose their proportional post on the district administration to the Left Party. The perils of success!

My favorite Berlin neighbourhoods

Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg may be my favourite electoral district of any kind anywhere.  It’s got some 268,000 inhabitants, so we’re not just talking about some small niche community. And it is reliably the most leftwing district of its size, I dare guess, in Europe. Among other things, it elected Germany’s first constituency MP for the Greens in 2002 (when the party had previously only MPs elected over party lists), and not just any Green either: Hans-Christian Ströbele.

This time, the results in the district were as follows: Greens 30%; SPD 24%; Pirates 15%; The Left 13%; CDU 8%; and the satirical PARTY party 2% – or a total of 87.1% for left-wing parties…

Who would you have voted?

If you speak German you can check for yourself what you should have voted by using the Wahl-o-Mat for these elections. Predictably, I got the Greens first (74 out of 86) and the Left directly after (71 out of 86), though if I include the various miniscule splinterparties, a couple of extreme-left parties (B, DKP and PSG) manage to squeeze in between the two still.

Hot spots

Various German news sites have published electoral maps showing the winner by city district. There are also great maps showing the winner, and party strengths and weaknesses, by individual city parliament electoral district. I like these ones on the US Election Atlas site (of all places) best.

For the heck of it, however, I downloaded the excel sheet with results by individual precinct (as opposed to just by city district or city assembly electoral district). If you are interested in this level of detail, one site to look up for sure is the section on the Berlin elections. Click on any city assembly electoral district, and you get a map of winners by individual precinct. It’s fairly rare to see electoral maps on that level of detail.

Myself, I was mostly interested in which individual precincts were the best for each of the main parties – hence downloading the excel sheet. I only looked at actual, walk-in polling stations, and not at the processing of votes by mail; and I looked at the party list vote (“Zweitstimme”), in order to reduce the effect of a particularly popular local candidate (the precincts map show the results by “Erststimme,” for individual candidate). The result: this map, which shows the top 5 results of the top 5 parties – though you’ll have to click on it to see it in full size.

Colour coded as obvious for Germans: red is the SPD, black the CDU, green the Greens, pinkish the Left and orange the Pirates

I colour coded the pins according to party colours: red is the SPD, black the CDU, green the Greens, pinkish the Left and orange the Pirates.

Kreuzberg vs Friedrichshain

Interestingly, both the Greens and the Pirates did best in the city district Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, but their bulwarks were on opposite ends of the district.

  • The Greens received 48% of the “second vote” in a precinct by the Fidicinstrasse, in South-West Kreuzberg. Four of the party’s top 5 results are in that part of Kreuzberg, in fact; and a full eight of its top 10 precinct were in Kreuzberg overall.
  • The Pirates received 26% of the vote in a precinct covering the few blocks around the Boxhagenerplatz, in the heart of Friedrichshain. (I think I was at a festival in the little park there once). More strikingly, three of the Pirates’ top five results and all of eight of its top 10 results were in Friedrichshain.

Highrises and suburbs

  • The Left Party received 43% of the vote in a precinct by the Schottstrasse in the Lichtenberg neighbourhood. All of four of its top 5 precincts were in the city district Lichtenberg, though its sixth-best result, at 41% of the vote, was in a precinct at the beginning of the Karl-Marx-Allee, just off Alexanderplatz. Judging on Google Street View, the party’s top two precincts are located amidst low-rise post-war housing blocks, while its third-best precinct is all major highrises.
  • The SPD received 46% of the vote in a precinct among some mid/highrises by the Michelangelostrasse and Gurtelstrasse in upper Prenzlauer Berg / Weissensee. Yes, that’s in former East-Berlin, but the numbers 2 through 12 of the top precincts were all in West-Berlin. SPD precinct #2 is located amidst highrise blocks in Wedding; its precincts #3-4 consist of more highrise blocks, but in the suburb of Spandau. Six of the next nine top SPD results are in Spandau too.
  • The CDU received 52% of the vote in a precinct by the Bernadottestrasse in Wilmersdorf. Very leafy: a clearly prosperous area. The party’s top 3 precincts actually covered adjoining ground: each covered bits of Grunewald / Schmargendorf that border the Berliner Forest.

What about the smaller parties (and we can include the FDP under that nomer now)? Let’s include the top 5 precinct results for the NPD and the BIG, which are all over 10%; as well as the one (1) precinct result where the FDP got over 10%:

Now with the NPD (brown), FDP (yellow) and BIG (dark green)

Now with the NPD (brown), FDP (yellow) and BIG (dark green)

  • The only precinct the FDP received more than 10% of the vote in is located in Steglitz-Zehlenforf, bordering the Berliner Forest. Its next four best results were all in Charlottenberg-Wilmersdorf, similarly close to the forest, and two of them were also among the top 5 results for the CDU. Rich people, basically.
  • The extreme-right NPD received 14% of the vote in a precinct by the Hugelschanze in Spandau Neustadt: an inconspicuous looking couple of streets, judging by Google Street View, fairly green, midrise buildings with a bit of graffiti. That’s in the West, but the party’s runner-up results #2-3 (12-13%) were both in Treptow-Kopenick, and its results #4-5 and #7-10 (10-12%) were all in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, all in the East. Its Treptow-Kopenick bulwarks consist of neatly kept-up post-war mid-rises and highrises, while its two best scores in Marzahn-Hellersdorf are adjoining plots of major highrises on the edge of the city.

On the populist-xenophobic (but not outright fascist) right,

  • pro-Deutschland received 7% of the vote at a voting station in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, and some 5-6% in a total of around 15 further precincts, two-thirds or so of which were in either Spandau or Marzahn-Hellersdorf.
  • FREEDOM received 9% of the vote in a precinct around the Idunastrasse up in Heinersdorf, city district Pankow. It received 8%, 5% and 5% of the vote, respectively, in three adjoining precincts in Heinersdorf, and also 5% at a polling station in Marzahn-Hellersdorf.

Odd one out

The conservative-Muslim BIG party, which is being tied to the Turkish government party AKP and campaigned for migrant rights but also against the alleged promotion of homosexuality in schools, received just tenths of a percentage point on a city-wide level. But it won as much as 10-15% in ten precincts. Eight of them were in the city districts Mitte or Fr’hain-Kreuzberg; it seems to have done well in Wedding in particular. Its best result, however, was in a precinct in Neukolln, around the Heinrich-Schlusnus-Strasse, which in Google Satellite View looks like a 1970s architectural experiment gone horribly wrong.

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Budapest riots: not what they used to be anymore

European Politics, Politics

– Crossposted from Cogitamus –
It’s March 15, a national holiday, and police was duly out in massive numbers to guard the some twenty different, mostly oppositional, manifestations that took place. March 15, on which Hungarians commemorate the 1848 uprising against their Habsburgian overlords, is one of the two or three most volatile days in this country. There’s always a great number of protest manifestations (especially if there is a leftwing government), and the last couple of years there was widespread rioting.

Which is why today was a bit of a disappointment, really.

I was sort of ready to ignore the festivities already, since after two and a half years and a dozen iterations, the demo-cum-riot scene has jumped the shark. It’s always the same anyway: angry grannies and families with Hungarian flags in the afternoon, hooded and balaclavad youths in the evening, when the mainstream conservative politicians sternly intoning their dire warnings make way for younger rabble-rousers, who shout about PM Gyurcsany, the commies, the police and the Jews. Demonstrators who look like the kind of mix of students and squatters you’d get in a far-left demo in Western Europe. Much posturing, waiting around, exchanging of tall tales, waving flags and shouting slogans; not to mention trying to impress the far-right girls, who are surprisingly cute. Marching this way and that, avoiding the police, building barricades, and then the inevitable show-down; teargas, batons, the crowd tearing back with scarves over their mouths. A lengthy cat-and-mouse game, as the rioters taunt the cops and pelt them with stones, until the dull thuds of tear gas grenades being shot into the crowd set everyone running again. Only for the game to start over twenty minutes later once the dust is settled. Rinse and repeat.

Nevertheless, I did keep an eye on the website of the Magyar Nemzet, a national-conservative newspaper which at every new iteration publishes a breathless minute-by-minute account of goings-on in the city. Very practical if you want to know where the riots are at any given moment. Not saying they actively incite the rioters, but … OK, who am I kidding, they do.

But it was thin gruel today. No large street battles, no kidnapped tank being driven around by demonstrators. A year ago, and two years ago, rioters would control sections of major thoroughfares downtown a mile long, rocks would rain down on the police shields. Barricades would be built, phonebooths felled and used as material, Molotov cocktails hurled. This time there was basically one violent clash of sorts, in the late afternoon near the Saint Stephen’s Basilica, around the corner from my work. Which was quickly smothered by an overwhelming police presence, with the riot cops easily outnumbering the rioters. (They’ve been recruiting).
By the time I bothered to haul myself over to the area, it was kind of sad really. Clumps of protestors, hanging around in small groups. Barely a flag among them, though there was a guy or two in a Hungarian Guard uniform. No chants of “Gyurcsany, bugger off”. Just waiting, cracking the odd joke but generally sharing a desultory mood. Warily watching the columns of riot police, clad in black, that blocked off the sidestreets. Sometimes a unit, upon barked commands, rattled off in a lockstep run, or moved into place. The whole street lined with police cars, vans, a whole bus arriving with fresh manpower.


Blurry images from the 2006 riots

Some grannies, the national tricolor pinned on their chest, heckled the cops; a drunk in camouflage slurred insults. We pay you, our taxes, now look at you. But mostly, the status quo was complete. A far right teen, in the practical combat-ready outfit of boots, thigh-highs and skirt, posing for the photo with her girl friend; a guy in near-folkloric nationalist outfit jollying around in mock-poses when I turn my camera his way. On the other side, the helmeted cops are painstakingly polite to anyone with a camera or otherwise visibly not part of the scene. Hard to imagine these were the troops who two years ago were condemned by Amnesty International for violent abuse of demonstrators they had carted off in their vans: they allegedly handcuffed and lined up rows of suspects on their knees, and beat them with truncheons. Though they do still look the part, and at one point wrestled someone from the crowd and violently pushed and shoved him into one of the waiting vans.

Generally though, the police seem to have learnt a lot, these past two years. In the first round of rioting, when protestors briefly occupied the building of Hungarian Television, more cops were injured than protestors. Night after night, they were hunting after bands of rioters running amock, unable to do more than chase them off to ever new places. Now, they seem in full control. What are they doing differently now? Lesson one: overwhelming numbers. Have a disproportionate presence vis-a-vis the rioters. Outnumber them in such proportions, they’re intimidated before they even start. Lesson two: preempt their moves. Smother even the slightest rioting before it escalates. Block off entire neighbourhoods if need be. Lesson three, and this may seem paradoxical: mingle. Well, mingle is perhaps not the right word. But again and again, a point arrived where a phalanx of riot cops crossed the street or jumped out of a bus — not, in old school style, to form a big line of shields and then push the protesting youths into a pack and then backward — but to mix into the crowd. With one cop for every protestor, noone even thinks of resistance as the cops scatter and demand ID from every youth, and frisk many of them.

Of course that’s only possible thanks to their force of numbers. And how this fits with your various civil rights, I don’t know. I’ve never been asked to ID myself just for gathering in protest when taking part in demonstrations back home – and that’s all these kids were doing, by the time I arrived.

Hear me, I’m defending fascists now. And there is genuine reason to worry about the flourishing far right movements, with the Hungarian Guard ceremonially inducting 650 new members today. Just two days ago, a right wing group called the Hungarian Arrows Liberation Army (named in reference to the WW2-era Arrow Cross regime) claimed responsibility for a bus explosion in Bács county. The group said it had wanted to punish a local coach company that had transported a group of Roma “marching against Hungarians” to a demonstration in Ózd, in order to “avenge the anti-Hungarian sentiment”. In all, four people have been killed in seven recent attacks against Roma.

The silent majority, meanwhile, is just disgusted with it all. A Eurobarometer poll published last month showed that just 16% of Hungarians trust their national government – compared to 45% who trusted local and regional authorities and 51% who trusted the EU. More damningly, a national pollconducted last month showed that “all Hungary’s politicians [..] have negative ratings”. Neither the President, a conservative, nor the Prime Minister, a socialist (albeit, as is the case with many ex-communists in the region, one who has embraced the market reform with a passion), was evaluated positively. Nor was the Speaker of the Parliament – or any of the main opposition leaders.

Nor does it seem to be a particularly ideological matter. While the conservative opposition party Fidesz “towers above all the other parties” in the poll, the least impopular politician is actually a Socialist. Moreover, it’s Katalin Szili, the parliamentary speaker who often criticizes PM Gyurscany … from the left. So the Hungarians don’t agree whether the answer lies to the left or to the right, they just know they’re fed up with what they have now. Which neatly summarises the political history of postcommunist Hungary, come to think of it.

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Moving house

Image used under CC license from augustusoz

Image used under CC license from augustusoz

Excuse the brief administrative intermezzo, but I am moving blogs. From now on, you can find me blogging on a day-to-day basis at Cogitamus.

To kick things off there, I posted an updated analysis of how the stimulus bill is polling – and what may explain the differences in results between different polls on the question.

If you tended to enjoy my posts here, do by all means keep reading Observationalism, but consider adding Cogitamus to your feed as well!

I’ll surely still drop in here for the occasional guest post, and Observationalism will continue to offer the rapier wit of Joefromchicago, the keen observations of Engineer, and the insightful posts of the others.

I’ve had a lot of fun here getting into blogging for the first time; I’m glad my peers at Observationalism created the opportunity to do so!


Fear the Vlad

Culture, European Politics, Politics

(Yes, I know everyone else already tried out a month or two ago…)

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Redditors to the rescue

Culture, Economy, Media / journalism, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

A Redditor started a Wiki on the stimulus bill. The purpose: to translate its provisions into ordinary language so regular people can understand it, filtering out the legalese. And to sort out exactly how much money is assigned to what and whom.

The initiative got some 870 up votes (and lots of discussion) on Reddit, and it seems like a fair spread of people is now working on the Wiki. I thought it was interesting: both the idea and the resonance it had. Citizenship in action?

Of course, as with every Wiki, the risk of pranks and manipulation looms rather large. But at least, as one commenter notes, it seems like an interesting social experiment. And even just the act of creating it should acquaint a bunch of people with the specifics of the bill, maybe better than many of the Congressmen who had to vote on it hours after the final version was released.

It’s also distinct from a partisan initiative like (offline right now), which was sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

No idea how useful or complete it will become. For one, while the site links to the post-conference version of the bill, it also notes that it is still largely based on the version that was passed by the House on 28 January. Whereas the bill was of course significantly modified since – first by the Senate, which made changes that according to Krugman would have created 600,000 jobs less than the original House bill, and then by the conference, which crafted a compromise between the two bills.

I’d also worry about reinventing the wheel. For example, as noted in the Reddit thread, the CBO already created a table, stretching for a few pages, that summarises the stimulus expenses, year by year, by section of the bill. (Table 2 in the enclosures of this letter from the CBO director to Nancy Pelosi.)

But still I thought it was great. At best it will make for a very neat tool, and at worst it will still, as initiative, be an encouraging sign of the times.

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Pithy criticism

Politics, US Politics

TNR The Plank commenter WoodyBombay on Judd Gregg’s withdrawal of his nomination for the Commerce Secretary post (the timing of which led at least some to suspect bad faith):

I hope that’s the last scorpion Obama ferries across the river for a while.

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I Got 95 Theses But A Pope Ain’t One

Culture, Funny, History

This was made last year, but I’d never come across it before, and it’s bloody brilliant.

It’s 1517, and Luther’s got some dope shit:

The lyrics are on the website. The whole thing was directed by a senior history major at Yale, Alexander Dominitz, and produced by a junior at Yale, Kate Maltby. More info also in an item she posted on the Iqra’i blog.

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Annals of Fox News reporting, Rahmbo edition

Media / journalism, Politics, US Politics

Many of the Americans among you, I suspect, will have heard of the telling incident this week in which Fox News aired a news item on the stimulus bill which repeated, word for word, the points in a press release from the Senate Republicans. Without ever mentioning that the analysis they were presenting came straight from Republican officials, of course. “It was so blatant,” Steve Benen notes, “Fox News’ on-screen graphic included the identical typo made in the original GOP document, making it obvious that the network used a party press release as a news script”.

But bias isn’t usually as jaw-droppingly stupid or outrageous. Subtle still isn’t quite the right word, but try this on: Some Critics Blame Emanuel for Obama’s Cabinet Troubles. I clicked the headline because, well, I don’t like Emanuel, so I’m in principle well-disposed to believing the diagnosis, even if it does come from Fox. (The HuPo, for example – admittedly not the most reliable source either – last week had a disturbing take on the stimulus negotiations, which alleged that Rahm had undermined Congressional Democrats and Nancy Pelosi in order to curry favour from moderate Republicans and deflect criticism of Obama.)

Alas. The Fox headline referred “some critics”. The opening sentence read, “President Obama’s latest Cabinet setback [..] has put the White House on the defensive, particularly Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whom some critics blame for cracks in the vetting process.” So what inside sources had Fox News found dishing the dirt on Rahmbo? Who was blaming Emanuel, and what did they have to share about his role in these vetting mess-ups?

Um, well … “some critics” turns out to refer to exactly one person. And that person turns out to be “Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.” That’s it. The only person they got to blame Rahm was the spokesperson to a lowly Republican Congressman, who himself is a bit of a crackpot.

The whole story, in fact, quotes just two sources. One is, unsurprisingly, Democratic consultant Doug Schoen, the kind of Democrat Republicans love; but even he refused to play ball, saying that “it’s hard to defend or attack Emanuel without knowing how involved he’s been in the vetting process,” and that it “doesn’t strike me as fair or appropriate [..] to put it all on Rahm”. The other’s Bardella.

He gets no less than six paras, though.


The Republican Senators who voted for the stimulus bill, Round II: The final bill

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

If you were in any suspense about which Republicans voted for the stimulus in the Senate, by the way, now that the previous Senate and House versions have been unified into a final bill, here’s a hint: they were the same ones as last time.

Four days ago, the Senate voted on its own version of the stimulus bil. All of three Republicans voted in favour: Olympia Snowe (ME), Susan Collins (ME) and Arlen Specter (PA). Judd Gregg (R-NH) abstained, and all other Republicans voted Nay, while all the Democrats voted Yea.

Then the bill went into the conference committee, where Senate and House bigwigs hammered out a compromise between the different versions of the bill the two chambers had passed. Yesterday the House passed the new version almost entirely along partisan lines, with not one Republican voting in favour and just seven Democrats voting against (see this post for the details). Which left it to the Senate to confirm the result and pass the new, unified bill as well.

They did so, and the vote was practically identical to last time. The only differences were that Ted Kennedy, battling brain cancer, wasn’t able to come now, and Gregg this time did not abstain but voted against. The result: 60 Yeas and 38 Nays, compared to 61-37 last time.

00064 13-Feb On the Conference Report Agreed to Conference Report; American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
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Polling the stimulus

Economy, Politics, US Economy, US Politics

You may have seen Karl Rove opine in the WSJ that “support for the stimulus bill is falling”, and that “the more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.” He is certainly not the only conservative asserting that the bill is impopular.

I’m not in the super-enthusiastic category myself, if obviously for very different reasons than conservatives have for disliking it. Overall I think the bill doesn’t look bad, though my initial enthusiasm has been damped somewhat after reading, for example, Paul Krugman’s very persuasive commentary. It’s probably not enough, and maddeningly worse than it could have been; but it’s still a whole lot better than nothing, and it does have lots of good stuff in it. So far my layman’s take, which is not exactly the most interesting one.

But what does the American population think? Is Karl Rove right? Unsurprisingly, not quite. An overview of the polls that were conducted in the past two and a half weeks, and explicitly asked respondents to express an opinion for or against the bill.

There are two pollsters that have done more than one poll within this timeframe: Gallup and Rasmussen.

Gallup asked: ”As you may know, Congress is considering a new economic stimulus package of at least 800 billion dollars. Do you favor or oppose Congress passing this legislation?” All three times it polled the question, it found a majority in favor, and in the last iteration, on the 10th, that majority had grown from 52% to 59%.

Rasmussen asked: ”Do you favor or oppose the economic recovery package proposed by Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats?” It found strikingly different results.

According to Rasmussen, in late January a narrow plurality of 42% was in favour; a week later the roles were reversed, with a plurality of 43% in opposition; and by the 11th a plurality of 44% was in favour again.

Three other pollsters asked a variation of the same question at some point in these last two and a half weeks.

A CBS poll queried respondents: ”Would you approve or disapprove of the federal government passing an economic stimulus bill costing more than 800 billion dollars in order to try to help the economy?” They approved by 51% to 39%.

A Pew poll asked respondents: ”From what you’ve read and heard, do you think [the economic stimulus plan being proposed by President Obama that may cost about $800 billion] is a good idea or a bad idea?”. It found a narrow majority of 51% saying it was a good idea; 34% thought it was a bad idea.

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Can nationalism help us be like leaf cutter ants?

Culture, environment, Funny

There was an interesting juxtaposition of successive posts on The American Scene on Wednesday*. In one post, Alan Jacobs links to a fascinating story on Wired, which lays out how leaf cutter ants avoid the very problems that plague urbanised human society with traffic congestion by instinct. Basically, they never get stuck in traffic, because they behave, well, rationally:

Of the returning ants, some were empty-mandibled — but rather than passing their leaf-carrying, slow-moving brethren, they gathered in clusters and moved behind them. This seemingly counterintuitive strategy — when stuck behind a slow-moving truck, are you content to slow down? — actually saved them time…

The trick here, of course, is that ants do not experience egoism:

“One dominating factor in human traffic is egoism,” said University of Zoln traffic flow theorist Andreas Schadschneider. “Drivers optimize their own travel time, without taking much care about others. This leads to phantom traffic jams which occur without any obvious reason. Ants, on the other hand, are not egoistic.”

The question, therefore, as Jacobs points out, is whether there is “any .. way to prompt people to learn these lessons? Or is unthinking, reflexive egotism invincible? It seems to me that the prime problem here is that the leafcutter approach only works if pretty much everyone applies it. I’m not sure that partial compliance would have much effect.”

Right. Enter the post directly below on the Scene, by James Poulos. He quotes the report you may have seen a while ago about the behaviour of the Titanic’s passengers:

[..] British passengers, who queued for a place in one of only 20 lifeboats provided for the 2,223 on board, had 10 percent lower chance of survival than any other nationality.

In contrast, Americans, who reportedly elbowed their way to the front of lines, had a 12 percent higher probability of survival than British subjects.

“Be British, boys, be British!” the captain, Edward John Smith, shouted out, according to witnesses.

“Being British” meant to forget mass panic behavior — everyone looking after themselves — and rather follow the social norm of “women and children first.”

Well, there you go then. The Brits suffered from their own selflessness because they were not among themselves, and their efforts to put community ahead of ego were crushed by those darned selfish Americans. But in a more or less mono-cultural (or -national) setting, then, the Brits were apparently able to apply a leaf cutter ant ethos to their community interaction – by invoking nationalism. Problem solved!

*I really need to start noting stuff straight away instead of keeping it in open tabs for days…
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