Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas Nan Loch (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) By-Election, 08/10/2020

NOTE: This by-election may be re-scheduled at short notice due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

Following hot on the heels of the Orkney by-election, we have a second Islands council by-election for Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas Nan Loch ward. This is the first by-election to have been called to a “normal” timescale since the pandemic began, the vacancy having only arisen in July when Independent Councillor Finlay Cunningham resigned. He was first elected in 2017. It also went a bit under the radar as I was completely unaware of it until nominations opened!

Note that the Gaelic terminology for both the council area and its wards is also the official English terminology as well. If you were to translate the terms, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar could be rendered as “the Western Isles Council”, whilst Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas Nan Loch approximates to “Harris and Lewis South”. Strictly speaking I imagine the last bit of the name has a more precise translation, but Lewis South suffices for our purposes. Although I do not speak Gaelic (my language learning before Coronavirus rudely interrupted it was Spanish) I do use the language wherever it is official, and only provide the rough translations for information purposes.

Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas Nan Loch is one of 9 wards that make up the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, and would normally elect three councillors. Most of the ward is Harris, an area which in strict geological terms is part of the overall island of Lewis and Harris, but has long been culturally considered a separate island. Harris is centred on An Tairbeart (Tarbert) at its narrowest point, with the northernmost limit effectively being the “neck” of the area north of Maaruig on the map below. The Lewis South portion is quite sparsely populated, mostly in a stretch along the east coast from Lemreway to Cromore. The island of Scalpay which has a couple of hundred residents is also within the ward boundaries.

At both Holyrood and Westminster the entire area of the Comhairle forms part of constituencies named Na h-Eileanan an Iar, both of which are currently held by the SNP. The party has a long history here, with Donald Stewart’s election in 1970 being the first (and at that point, only) seat the SNP had won at a General Election. If Winnie Ewing’s Hamilton By-Election success in 1967 can be taken as the point at which the SNP’s continuous presence at Westminster began, then Stewart’s 1970 victory here is when that presence was secured. Nonetheless, Labour regained the seat in 1987, won the Holyrood equivalent in 1999, and would keep both seats until 2005 and 2007 respectively.

It’s also worth noting that although the Comhairle follows the general Islands trend of being largely Independent, it has typically been the most party-political of the three councils in recent years. In 2007 it had 6 party councillors out of 31, a mighty 10 in 2012, and then 8 since 2017. Most of these were SNP with a smaller handful of Labour seats in the first two elections, but for whatever reason the Labour incumbents opted to stand as Independents in 2017. The second party then became the Conservatives who won a single councillor.

None of the Islands Council wards have had changes since 2007, so all elections are directly comparable. At that first election it went two Independents plus one SNP. In 2012 only one Independent stood, Catherine MacDonald, and won a staggering 62% of the vote to herself, which made her transfers the deciding factor in Labour winning a seat over a second SNP candidate. In 2017, MacDonald had an equally staggering drop to around 14% of the vote in a much more crowded field with five new Independents, plus the Labour councillor also re-standing as an Independent. The SNP held their seat but the two incumbents weren’t as lucky, and were replaced by two of the fresh Independents, including the now outgoing Finlay Cunningham.

MacDonald’s defeat helped contribute to giving the Comhairle the dubious distinction of being the only Council in Scotland with no women elected. This time around there are three Independent candidates to choose from, all of whom are entirely fresh faces as far as I can make out:

  • Grant Fulton (Ind)
  • Annie Macdonald (Ind)
  • Kris O’Donnell (Ind)

Although there was a touch of partisanship here at the full election, with a pool that is entirely new and Independent, there is nothing to be gleaned from re-calculating the 2017 result. The chart below therefore shows the first preferences from 2017 for information only.

As per the Islands usual, I’m not really in a position to say anything other than well, obviously, it’ll be Independent victory. As ever, if anyone has more local knowledge than I do, please let me know! That said, and knowing nothing at all of each candidate’s platform, voters in the ward may wish to consider whether they’d really like to continue having the only all-male council in Scotland.

Call: Independent Win