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The undemocratic arithmetic of democracy

by Jonathan Wills, Labour candidate (failed), 1974 and 1999.

This is one of the more interesting elections since I first cast a vote, 41 years ago. The intervention of a plausible independent candidate with a ready-made following (some 3,600, to judge by the signatures on the anti-windfarm petition) means it’s theoretically possible for anyone to win this five-horse race with roughly that number of votes.

The arithmetic tells us that, if roughly 60 per cent of the electorate of just over 17,000 turn out to vote, as usually happens here, the winner could represent Shetland at Holyrood for the next four years with the support of between a fifth and a quarter of the electorate.

That’s because, although we’re having a vote in the UK’s Alternative Vote referendum on the same day, our constituency MSP is still elected on the discredited and undemocratic Westminster system of first-past-the-post.

I’ve never understood why we elect the regional list MSPs by a form of proportional representation, but the local MSP in the bad old way. Clearly we have some way to go before our democracy is perfected.

A year into the much disliked Con-Dem coalition at Westminster, it would be a brave punter who put a fiver on the Lib-Dem vote here to go up. Tavish Scott’s done his best to distance himself from the coalition’s toxic UK brand, but politics is an unfair business and his record as a hard-working constituency member may not be enough to save him from a hammering on 5 May.

His core vote dipped below 50 per cent in 2003, but with 67 per cent of the poll in 2007 he still looked unbeatable – until Billy Fox entered the ring.

The Tory is a disarmingly frank chap with local connections but, thanks to the Cameron albatross around his neck, he’ll surely be hard pushed to hold the core Tory vote, which is probably only about 800.

Labour’s Jamie Kerr is a likeable and energetic civil rights lawyer and in normal times could be expected to boost their support above 20 per cent, but these are not normal times.

There are too many members who’ve left in disgust at the betrayal of Labour principles. Letting the bankers off the leash in 1997 and off the hook in 2008 appears to have scuppered Labour’s chances. Still in quarantine after the illegal invasion of Iraq, the party may be moving out of intensive care, but it’s a long way from recovering its role as the acceptable face of social democracy.

That brings us to the SNP candidate, Jean Urquhart. Attacked for being “parachuted in” to Shetland, she nonetheless knows a great deal about the politics of the Highlands and Islands. She also has long experience of running a small business in a remote rural community with similar problems to ours. No ‘Tartan Tory’ she, either: Mrs Urquhart has an impressive record of speaking up for progressive causes, as a Highland councillor and on other public organisations where she serves.

Despite the slightly cynical Lib-Dem campaign against the Nats over our local school closures, the SNP has three very useful local cards: as well as the popular freeze on council tax and continued free tuition for students, the fact is that the SNP minority government has made not a bad job of protecting the SIC’s and other local authorities’ budgets.

The cuts could have been much, much worse after the financial catastrophe caused by Brown’s bankers’ charter and George Osborne’s pitiful attempts at fiscal reform (which have actually made it easier for the super-rich to avoid tax by moving ‘offshore’).

If you look at the SIC’s £18m budget deficit, as I’m obliged to do almost daily, alas, you’ll see that probably less than £3m of it is due to unavoidable cuts in Scottish government support. Most of the deficit is the result of incompetent political management at local level and extravagant spending on grandiose and/or abortive council projects. Not even the jittery Lib-Dems are blaming the SNP for the council’s follies.

The SNP minority government hasn’t been perfect but on the whole it’s been a reasonable, moderate administration in the old Scandinavian social democratic tradition. Many of the disappointments have resulted from compromises any minority government is forced to make.

I think the SNP’s earned an unfettered second term. In Jean Urquhart we have a candidate who’d be an effective and respected voice for Shetland with the new administration. Oh, and she’s on the regional list too, by the way, so you can actually vote for her twice!


Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021