Shetland (Scottish Parliament) By-Election, 29/08/19

In an unexpected turn of events, former Scottish Liberal Democrats leader Tavish Scott announced his resignation last month, prompting a by-election for the Shetland constituency. It’s an exciting first for Ballot Box Scotland, as it’s just been council by-elections until now. In Holyrood by-election stakes, this is the;

  • 2nd of this term, following the Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire by-election in 2017
  • 11th overall in the history of the Scottish Parliament
  • 1st to be prompted by a Lib Dem MSP

Tavish Scott was one of a handful of MSPs remaining who were elected to the first Parliament in 1999 and have continuously represented the same seat. Scott held a succession of government posts when the Lib Dems were in coalition for the first 8 years of devolution – Deputy Minister for Parliament, Deputy Minister for Finance and Public Services, and finally in Cabinet as Minister for Transport and Communications from 2005 until the SNP took office in 2007.

Scott was elected leader in 2008 following the similarly surprise resignation of Nicol Stephen. After joining the coalition with the Conservatives at UK level, the Lib Dems crashed from 16 to 5 MSPs in 2011, prompting Scott’s resignation. Despite the party’s continuing difficulties in 2016, he held his seat with the largest vote share of his career and of any MSP in that election.

Shetland covers 300-odd islands and skerries which make up Scotland’s most northerly and easterly reaches, 14 of them inhabited. The mainland accounts for over 80% of the population, making it the second most populated island in Scotland, and home to the only three major localities (built up areas with populations over 500) in the islands – Lerwick, Scalloway and Braes.

Most of the remainder (15%) live on Whalsay, Yell, West Burra or Unst, the other islands having populations below 500. Shetland’s distance from the Scottish mainland and historic links to Norway – sometimes overplayed, the islands having been annexed in 1472 – have given it a unique culture and a somewhat independent streak, as well as a strong dislike of being put in a box.

The constituency covers the same area as Shetland Islands council, which consistently has large independent majorities. For the UK Parliament, it forms the joint constituency of Orkney and Shetland, also held by the Lib Dems. In fact, it has been held by them (or the Liberals before) since 1950, including the rock bottom of 6 seats and 2.5% of the vote in 1951. At Holyrood, Shetland is one of eight constituencies in the Highlands and Islands region, and as such is also represented by three Conservatives, two Labour, one SNP and one Green as regional list MSPs.

Obviously, there have been no changes to the boundaries of the constituency since 1999, so the results of every past election are directly comparable. Beatrice Wishart, independent councillor for Lerwick South, will be hoping to continue Scott’s history of success in this by-election. For those of us not familiar with island council politics it might seem a bit odd to be an active member of a political party but sit as an independent on the council, but it’s reasonably common. Her main party challenger is the SNP’s Tom Wills, son of former Lerwick South (2008-2017) councillor Jonathan Wills. The senior Wills sat as an independent but contested a handful of parliamentary elections as a Labour candidate – see what I mean?

Although not elected, the Greens’ Debra Nicolson is another “independent party member” example, having stood in Shetland West in 2017. Notably, this is only the 4th Holyrood by-election the Greens have contested, which equals the number of times they’ve contested constituencies at full elections (1 in 2007, 3 in 2016). Rounding out the Holyrood parties, Labour have selected local community councillor Johan Adamson, and the Conservatives Brydon Goodlad. Surprisingly, UKIP are also standing a candidate. Stuart Martin represents a tiny bit of Ballot Box Scotland history, as he was a candidate in Falkirk’s Bonnybridge and Larbert by-election which was the first election I covered.

Four independent candidates pad out the rest of the ballot – two current councillors, a former councillor, and a local eccentric. Ryan Thomson from the North Isles ward is standing as an independent for a bit of consistency, whereas Shetland Central councillor Ian Scott is standing under a “Fight Austerity, Save our NHS, Save our Welfare State” banner. Both were first elected in 2017. Michael Stout represented Lerwick North from 2012-17 but did not stand for re-election, and finally Peter Tait is standing on the rather… unique platform of bringing the home-base of the Monarchy back to Scotland and repealing the Act of Settlement.

  • Johan Adamson (Labour)
  • Brydon Goodlad (Conservative)
  • Stuart Martin (UKIP)
  • Debra Nicolson (Greens)
  • Ian Scott (Fight Austerity, Save our NHS, Save our Welfare State)
  • Michael Stout (Independent)
  • Peter Tait (Independent)
  • Ryan Thomson (Independent)
  • Tom Wills (SNP)
  • Beatrice Wishart (Liberal Democrats)

Scott was elected with a pretty stonking majority of the vote every time, peaking at a whopping 50.1% in 2007. That was slashed to 17.2% in 2011, but crucially the challenger was a local independent – no other political party has ever come within 25%. I’ve also included the list vote in the constituency at each election as a matter of interest, though of course no list poll will take place this time. The Lib Dems have likewise consistently lead on that vote, though the SNP were just 3.1% behind in 2011.

Given the size of the constituency and his length of service, it’s likely that Scott has a personal vote that explains some of the huge gap between the two votes. However, the islands so consistently vote Lib Dem at both Holyrood and Westminster that I think most of the difference is simply that Shetlanders are loyal to Lib Dems when it comes to distinct representation for Shetland. They are otherwise happy to vote for other parties in proportional votes where resulting parliamentarians represent a wider area – see the EU Elections, where they came in just below 30% in May.

I’m therefore inclined to say it’d be vanishingly unlikely for Wishart not to hold the seat – especially in the context of a seeming revival for the Lib Dems across the UK. Given local profile and Shetland’s independent streak, either or both of the other sitting councillors could do quite well, but I reckon it’d take a single very strong Independent to shift the Lib Dems.

Call: Lib Dem hold.