Wards Worth Watching takes a look at what could be some of the most interesting contests across Scotland this May, based on past election results. No claim is made that these are the only possible changes that will occur, nor that other wards aren’t interesting. Some possible outcomes will be impacted by party decisions as to number of candidates and whether incumbent councillors choose to re-stand or not.
What English speakers may refer to as Western Isles Council is formally and legally rendered as Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, in recognition of Gaelic’s continued strong role in the islands. Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis is a sizeable town and the local political centre, but otherwise the population is quite widely dispersed through the chain. Historically the isles were split between two counties, with Lewis part of Ross and Cromarty, and everywhere else Inverness-shire, before being granted a unified council in 1973.
Politically, the isles are notable for being the smallest constituency of the UK parliament, and for giving the SNP their first ever seat won at a general election. They’d been Labour for decades before the SNP won the seat in 1970. Labour would regain the seat in 1987 and hold it until 2005. The identical Holyrood seat similarly started out in Labour hands, going SNP in 2007.
Since the creation of the local islands council, Independents have always been in the majority. In fact it wasn’t until 1994 they had party-affiliated councillors at all. In the final three FPTP elections, both Labour and the SNP had representatives, though Independents remained dominant.
Previous STV Elections
You can’t keep an Independent down in the islands, and they won 80% of the seats here, a total of 25. Nonetheless, CNES remained the most political of the Islands councils as the SNP elected 4 councillors, and Labour 2.
This was a good election for political parties in in the Western Isles, as the SNP grew to 7 and Labour to 3 seats. Independents still had a comfortable majority of 21, but that was a comparatively weak performance for them.
No surprises for guessing that Independents remained miles ahead in 2017 as well, this time with 23 seats. The SNP again won 7, but in a curious turn of events, Labour didn’t stand any candidates. Two of their councillors stood for re-election but as Independents, and were unsuccessful. However, that didn’t leave the SNP as sole party on the council, as a single Conservative was elected.
Wards Worth Watching
If you’ve read the two earlier Islands articles, you’ll know roughly what to expect in this one – it’s hard to say too much about what might happen, given so much of what might happen is going to be various Independents winning. That’s important locally but hard for a single nerd covering all of Scotland to be fully aware of. That said, since this is the most political of the island councils, it is easier to pick out some interesting titbits.
All of these are in wards impacted by boundary changes, which have been quite substantial and have reduced the Comhairle to 29 seats. Indeed, were it not for the fact the islands are so Independent, given six of the wards are two-seaters thanks to the new flexibility offered by the Islands Act, I’d say this has taken Midlothian’s “least naturally proportional council” crown.
From the SNP, we’ll be looking to see if they further grow their group, or if boundary changes help deplete it a bit. For Conservatives, it’ll be a question of whether they hold their seat and if they can pull off any further gains. Will Labour make a return to formal candidates, and can the Greens formally pick up a seat?
Note that throughout the sections below I’ll be referring to wards primarily by their official, Gaelic names. I will however provide what I understand to be the rough English equivalent (bearing in mind I don’t speak Gaelic myself) for context. In addition, I’ve made some very rough estimates of vote shares under new boundaries, but emphasis there is on “very rough”!
Update following close of nominations: The SNP are up in 7 of the 11 wards here, alongside 2 Conservatives and 1 apiece for the Greens and Alba. No return for Labour or the Lib Dems, making this one of their only two or four, respectively, vacancies. More details here.
Despite the decrease in number of councillors overall on the Comhairle, it ended up suffering the most from uncontested and undercontested wards. Sgìre an Rubha was uncontested, electing Independents Norrie MacDonald and Finlay Stewart. Barraigh agus Bhatarsaigh was undercontested, electing Independent Kenneth Maclean and leaving a vacancy. Sgìr Ùige agus Carlabhagh was undercontested, electing Conservative Ranald Fraser and leaving a vacancy. The vacancies will be filled through by-elections in due course.
Barraigh agus Bhatarsaigh / Barra and Vatersay (2)
Estimated 2017 Councillors: SNP x2.
Split off from the previous Barraigh, Bhatarsaigh Èirisgeigh agus Uibhist a Deas ward, this was very nearly a single member ward, per the Commission’s original proposals. However, they accepted a proposal to bump it up to two seats. The SNP were absolutely dominant in this bit of the islands, to the extent they should have easily won both seats in 2017. Of course, Islands Independents can always surprise, so a strong contender could reduce the SNP to a sole seat here.
Update following close of nominations: No presence from the SNP at all, the popular Donald Manford not re-standing again, and thus the election of that sole Independent and a vacant seat.
Uibhist a Deas, Èirisgeigh agus Beinn na Faoghla / South Uist, Eriskay and Benbecula (3)
2017 Councillors: Independents x2, SNP.
The remaining, majority, portion of Barraigh, Bhatarsaigh Èirisgeigh agus Uibhist a Deas then absorbs Beinn na Faoghla from the previous Beinn Na Foghla agus Uibhist a Tuath ward, leaving Uibhist a Tuath to itself. My estimate here is for two Independents (though I can’t be sure which two given this is a merger of parts of previous wards) plus an SNP councillor in 2017, though again, emphasis on estimate.
I’ve pulled one specific Independent out for particular interest, which is Roddy MacKay. He joined the Greens last year, and I’m assuming he’s re-standing. His base of support seems to be in Beinn na Faoghla, hence pulling him into this ward rather than assuming he’d stand in the new Uibhist a Tuath.
Although he doesn’t appear to have a particularly high share here, remember this only reflects those votes that came from the previous ward – we can’t know how many he’d get in areas that weren’t in it. If we assume that, similar to Orkney, any Green would be elected more on a personal than party basis, this is a possibility, but it might be a tough one. It’s also possible the SNP end up failing to properly pick up a councillor here, so this ward could really go either fully Independent or two-thirds party – hard to say!
Na Hearadh / Harris (2)
2017 Councillors: Cunningham (Independent), SNP.
The previous ward here was Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas Nan Loch, but with the flexibility to drop down to 2 councillors now, Na Hearadh was able to receive a ward all to itself. As this is a split rather than a merger, I could make a slightly better estimate at vote shares for particular candidates, by eliminating and transferring votes from the candidates whose base was outside Na Hearadh.
Given there are only two seats, and all three councillors elected in 2017 were rooted in the Na Hearadh end of that previous ward, something presumably has to give. It already shifted a bit, as Cunningham resigned and was replaced at a by-election by Grant Fulton. Assuming both Finnegan and Fulton re-stand, they could bump out the SNP – or, the SNP could hold on at the expense of one of them.
Sgìr’ Ùige agus Càrlabhagh / Uig and Carloway (2)
2017 Councillors: MacDonald (Independent), Conservative.
Again, this is a truncation of an existing ward, which was previously Sgìr’ Ùige agus Ceann a Tuath Nan Loch. By my reckoning, the most popular of 2017’s Independents was based in the portion that’s been cut off, so the above chart is the estimate having eliminated him and transferred his votes.
By this estimate, both notionally successful candidates get elected with quota on first preferences alone – and thus the Conservatives are notionally defending their sole seat here. Islands being as they are, they could of course lose out to another Independent this time, but that’s not something that can be specifically foreseen.
Update following close of nominations: Only the Conservative stood, and thus elected uncontested and with a vacancy left over.
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