Orkney & Shetland #GE17: It Begins

Can the local elections in Orkney and Shetland be taken as any kind of indicator of what may happen at the General Election on June 8th? Well as nearly all the candidates were standing as Independents clearly it is difficult but some relevant analysis can be done including looking at the Scottish Election of 2016 and the General Election of 2015.

In the local elections in Orkney 2 candidates stood for the Scottish Green Party with 1 being elected. In Shetland 1 candidate stood for the SNP and was elected in an uncontested seat. Also in Shetland 2 candidates who stood for the Conservative and Unionist Party polled a mere 48 & 26 votes in their wards.

This poor result for the Conservatives in the Northern Isles is in line with their declining vote over the decades. The most recent vote for the Scottish Parliament in 2016 gave the Tories 405 votes (3.7%) in Shetland and 435 votes (4.1%) in Orkney. Jamie Halcro Johnston who stood for the Tories in Orkney and lost his deposit then is contesting the Constituency seat on June 8th. It does not auger well for the Conservatives.

Looking at the Scottish Parliamentary results we find Robina Barton who stood for Labour in Shetland getting 651 votes (5.9%) a slight decrease in her party’s vote. She will contest the Constituency for Labour in the General Election. For Orkney in 2016 Labour did very poorly at 304 votes (2.9%).  It is very hard to see Labour improving at all on these figures given their weak standing nationally.

The Liberal Democrats do not field candidates in the local elections in Orkney and Shetland, however, they did have some elected as Independents but they also had some not elected under the same banner. Equally the SNP had one councillor elected in Shetland (an uncontested seat ) but did not stand in Orkney. And just like the Liberal Democrats they did have supporters elected under that Independent tag.

In 2016 the vote for the LibDems in both Island groupings was huge at 67.4% in both Shetland and Orkney.  This was a complete turnaround for the LibDems who in the 2015 General Election saw their vote plummet to 41.4% with the SNP snapping at their heels at 37.8%. The SNP were unable to keep up the strength of this vote just one year later when they only polled 24.3% in Orkney and 23.1% in Shetland (although that vote in Shetland had gone up by 11%).

Will voter turnout be a factor?

In the local elections just under half the voters eligible to vote in Orkney did so, 49.7%.with a similar story in Shetland at 49.9%. This is much lower than at the 2016 elections, Orkney 62%, Shetland 62.1% or indeed the General Election 65.8% in 2015. Orkney and Shetland had both seen declining turnouts in their national elections but the last 2 years have seen a change.

In both the local and Scottish Parliamentary election 16/17 year olds and resident EU citizens were entitled to vote. This will not be the case for the General Election and both of these groups would be more likely to vote SNP than Liberal Democrat.

The Liberal Democrats successfully campaigned in 2016 with the slogan ” It’s a Two Horse Race” and “Vote Liberal Democrat to Keep the SNP Out”. This is again their strategy for 2017 hoping to take votes from both the Conservatives and Labour Party. They also spent large amounts of money in both constituencies and brought in party workers from outside to bolster the few activists they have in the islands. Targeting both seats certainly worked with their candidates getting 2/3 of the votes cast.

Alistair Carmichael

Alistair Carmichael (photo James Gourley/Liberal Democrats)

In 2015 Alistair Carmichael clung on by 817 votes a drop of 21.6% in the Liberal Democrat vote. Labour, Conservatives and UKIP also dropped their vote. Only the SNP increased their vote, going up by 27.2%. Carmichael, of course, was part of the Conservative/LibDem coalition Government which was hugely unpopular in Scotland with its Austerity agenda and swingeing cuts to welfare.  He then became embroiled in a smear campaign against the First Minster of Scotland and later admitted to having told a blatant lie about the extent of his involvement and that he was behind it.

Miriam Brett smiling

Miriam Brett ( Photo K Armet)

Can Carmichael, however, again manage to hold back the SNP?  This time round the SNP have a new candidate, Miriam Brett, a young Shetlander. A very accomplished and articulate woman who has worked as the economics adviser to the SNP Westminster Group. Carmichael has to his advantage the long standing relationship the Northern Isles has with the Liberals/Liberal Democrats having been represented by them since 1950. Will this be enough for him to hang on? The demographics of the constituency are in his favour with older voters being more reluctant to vote for change and to keep with the person they know. Will Carmichael’s tarnished reputation and his past voting record in support of the Tories bother the electorate to the extent that they put a cross beside the SNP?

Simply put Carmichael and the LibDems have to win this. The SNP may win – but even just doing better than in 2016 or 2015 will be a victory for them. It’s a very hard constituency to campaign in with islands to visit by ferry, or for those candidates with big financial backing, by plane. Two other candidates have also declared they will stand and if this is a close fought election it could make a difference. Robert Smith is again contesting the seat for UKIP and in 2015 he polled 1,082 votes (4.8%) and Stuart Hill is standing as an Independent. The Scottish Greens have yet to decide. All these other candidates will have an impact on who gets elected.

For Carmichael this is a far more uncertain election than 2015 ever was. It is there to be lost. For Brett  –  It is there to be won.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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