Thursday, 8 October 2015

By-election Previews: 7/8 October 2015

Two local by-elections in Scotland this week - first a rare Wednesday contest out in the Western Isles, followed by a large rural ward in the Highlands on Thursday...

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar
Caused by the death of Independent councillor Iain Morrison at the age of 60.  "Iain a' Mhillichan", as he was better known on Lewis, was one of the longest serving Western Isles councillors, having been first elected in 1999 for the former Barvas and Arnol ward.  Morrison was a director of and driver for the family bus company.  A keen footballer who once played in goal for Stornoway United against Celtic, Morrison served for eight years as chairman of the Western Isles Island Games association, standing down after the 2013 Island Games in Bermuda at which the Western Isles team won ten medals, four of them gold.

For the first of this week's two Scottish by-elections we travel to the Isle of Lewis.  An Taobh Siar agus Nis can be loosely translated into English as "West Side and Ness", and consists of a series of villages along Lewis' north-west coast, from Shawbost at the western end to the Port of Ness at the eastern end.  This is a little-known and less-visited area, and a stronghold of the Gaelic language: this is the ward with the highest proportion of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, and has the distinction of being the most northwesterly electoral district in the European Union.  Included within the ward is the remote island of Sula Sgeir, a dot in the north Atlantic forty miles to the north of Lewis inhabited only by gannets: these are a local delicacy on Ness, with the supply coming from a controversial licensed hunt each autumn.

The Outer Hebrides' local politics are dominated by independents, although not to the same extent as in the non-partisan Orkney or Shetland: in the 2012 election official party candidates took ten of the islands' 31 seats.  One of those was an SNP gain in West Side and Ness, coming from an independent councillor who had stood down.  The other three independent councillors were all re-elected very easily, Iain Morrison coming top of the poll; between them the five independent candidates had 80% and the SNP 20%.  One of the other independent councillors, Kenneth Murray, died earlier this year and was replaced by Alistair Maclennan, who had been a distant runner-up in the 2012 election; however, that by-election wasn't covered in this column because it was uncontested - the first uncontested local election in Scotland since the introduction of PR in 2007.

Two independent candidates are standing to succeed Morrison.  John Norman Macleod is prominent in the local community and was prominent in Lewis' Yes campaign during last year's referendum, while Richard Froggatt is a carer who migrated here from England nine years ago.  Completing the ballot paper is the ward's only official party candidate, TV editor Gavin Humphreys of the Scottish Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Na h-Eileanan an Iar
Holyrood constituency: Na h-Eileanan an Iar
ONS Travel to Work Area: Eilean Siar

March 2015 by-election Ind unopposed
May 2012 result Ind 1166 (5 candidates) SNP 298
May 2007 result Ind 1787 (7 candidates)

Highland council
Caused by the resignation of Scottish National Party councillor Drew Hendry, who is now the Member of Parliament for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey.  Hendry was the leader of Highland council from 2012 to 2015, and had served as a Highland councillor since 2007.

As the name might suggest, this is one of Highland's large rural wards.  The Aird is an area of high ground immediately to the west of Inverness, between Loch Ness and the Beauly Firth.  The Beauly Firth terminates at Beauly, which is the ward's largest population centre and the site of its railway station, which reopened in 2002 and provides a commuter service to Inverness.  The rest of the population is scattered across a series of tiny villages in the Aird, Strathglass, and on and to the east of Loch Ness.

Before PR all four wards covering this area - Beauly and Strathglass, Kirkhill, Loch Ness East and Loch Ness West - had returned independent councillors, and the two Loch Ness wards were uncontested at their last election in 2003.  The introduction of PR in 2007 led to contested elections across Scotland and also to established parties getting in on the act - since 2007 two of the four seats in Aird and Loch Ness have been independent-held, with one going to the SNP and one to the Lib Dems.  In 2012 all four outgoing councillors were re-elected, with the two independent councillors polling 46% between them, the SNP 28% and the Lib Dems - who beat the second SNP candidate very comfortably - on 12% of the first preferences.

Since May the SNP have had to defend seventeen seats in local by-elections, that large number mostly coming about because of newly-elected MPs departing for Westminster - and they have held all seventeen and gained two (one each from the Greens and Tories) for good measure.  However, this hold may be the most difficult of the lot from a starting point of only 28% and being in the leadership on Highland council.  The task of defending the ward falls to Emma Knox, the former Procurator Fiscal for Inverness who was unlawfully dismissed from that job in 2013 after being banned from driving following a near-fatal road accident.  The independent candidate is Zofia Fraser, chairwoman of the Inverness Polish Association who recently won an award for her efforts to help Poles integrate into Highland life.  The Lib Dem candidate is Jean Davis, now a steward at Inverness cathedral following a career in occupational health, who was twice a parliamentary candidate for the Western Isles.  Also standing are George Cruickshank for the Tories and Vikki Trelfer of the Scottish Green Party.

Parliamentary constituency: Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (part: former Kirkhill, Loch Ness East and Loch Ness West wards); Ross, Skye and Lochaber (part: former Beauly and Strathglass ward)
Holyrood constituency: Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch
ONS Travel to Work Area: Inverness and Dingwall

May 2012 result Ind 1853 SNP 1127 LD 498 C 279 Lab 221 UKIP 66
May 2007 result Ind 2854 SNP 892 LD 550 C 355 Lab 292