SHETLAND has been particularly severely hit by cuts to council spending – losing more than three times the national average in the past years – and is badly in need of greater public investment.
That is the message of Labour’s candidate for next month’s Scottish Parliament election, Martin Kerr, who is drawing attention to figures showing the isles lost £355 per person in local authority funding between 2013 and 2021 compared to a national real terms average of £95 per person.
Only the Western Isles, at £522, fared worse while Orkney lost out on £59 per head according to the Scottish Parliament’s information centre: “When you look at that league table of cuts Shetland is almost right at the top,” Kerr tells Shetland News.
The Glasgow-based lawyer was drafted in at the last minute to contest a seat that is not exactly happy hunting ground for Labour after their original candidate, Cameron Thompson, had his endorsement withdrawn by the party on 17 March.
No reasons were given at the time, with Thompson not going into detail other than claiming it was “not because of remarks about Palestine on social media”.
Kerr has since said he didn’t have “any knowledge” about the previous candidate but was “absolutely delighted to get the opportunity to advance Labour’s case”. And it is certainly a case that needs advancing if the party is to turn around its political fortunes on these shores.
In common with the Tories, an endless succession of poor results has gone hand in hand with a largely inactive local party – reaching a nadir in the 2019 by-election when Johan Adamson won 152 votes, a share of just 1.29 per cent.
That was down on the 5.9 per cent won by Robina Barton five years ago, but Labour’s support has been sliding ever since candidate Jonathan Wills, whose son Tom is the SNP candidate, took 22 per cent of the vote in 1999’s inaugural Scottish Parliament election.
The assumption is many natural supporters have deserted both parties to shore up the Lib Dem vote in the face of firmer challenges from the SNP.
And, while Kerr is appealing for both constituency and list votes, urging islanders to take a “fresh look” at a party under new management at Holyrood and Westminster, he recognises the “electoral complexity” at play.
“I think now the Scottish Parliament has been going for over 20 years… the electorate is in my view quite sophisticated, particularly in seats like Shetland. While I am certainly asking people for both votes, I’m also appealing for people’s second vote.
Please read our other candidate profiles here:
4 May – Independent candidate Peter Tait wants ‘greater emphasis on moral values’
29 April – Independence not top of his priorities due to Covid recovery, says SNP candidate Wills
22 April – ‘We need to stop being backward looking’, Conservative candidate Nick Tulloch insists
17 April – ‘Punching above their weight’ – Lib Dem Wishart vows to continue speaking up for islanders
15 April – Nugent hopeful party’s ‘unique selling point’ will resonate with voters
“Labour as a second vote is a natural home, really, for a Lib Dem. If someone is determined to vote Lib Dem on the first vote, and they’re beyond persuasion, I don’t think the Lib Dems have ever had a list MSP in the Highlands and Islands, and there’s also an argument that it’s a sound vote for other parties too.”
Kerr accepts that “for a long time Scottish Labour just hasn’t been on the pitch” but he believes, with Anas Sarwar newly installed at Holyrood and Keir Starmer fronting the opposition at Westminster, that has now changed.
“We’re rooted in Labour values, but we’ve got a fresh prospectus,” he says, adding he feels Sarwar in particular “is now connecting with people”.
The party’s manifesto places a national plan including support for the NHS to get cancer treatment back on track and tackle mental health problems, funding to bolster IT within schools, investment in green jobs and help for a high street recovery at the heart of its five-year vision.
“You look to services, you look to strengthening and improving things like the NHS, strengthening and improving things like education, looking to the jobs market… looking to how disadvantaged and deprived communities can be helped,” Kerr says.
Long term UK inequalities after 11 years of Tory rule are becoming more prevalent “not just south of the border but more and more in Scotland too”, bringing him onto the way the SNP has cut council spending “right across Scotland, which doesn’t seem to get a huge amount of attention, since 2014”.
Kerr’s party will oppose an independence poll at any time in the next five years, saying recovery from Covid-19 must remain the priority. With an estimated 7,000 in Scotland living with an undiagnosed cancer, “how does another referendum help us with that issue?” he asks.
With the party out of power in both parliaments for over a decade, Sarwar is arguably on firmer ground calling for a commission to “clean up Holyrood” in the wake of the Alex Salmond inquiry than Douglas Ross and the Conservatives, who find themselves mired in allegations of sleaze and misconduct with increasing regularity.
But, while Kerr is “no fan of Boris Johnson”, he believes there is “a temptation to believe that our politics is any better than that” and it is “always hardest to look in your own back yard as opposed to across the fence”.
“Elected public officials are under high duty to demonstrate integrity and demonstrate honesty, and that doesn’t appear to be what we’re getting from the SNP,” says Kerr, who worked overseas including a few years in Azerbaijan.
In terms of islands-specific issues, as a latecomer to the election Kerr is clearly not as well versed as his Lib Dem and SNP opponents, but is clear that “the voice of islands is not being heard”.
“There are peculiar and unique aspects not just of the islands in general, but Shetland in specific, which means they need tailored policy, and that’s what the Islands Act is partly allowed to do. But it doesn’t seem to be given the due attention that it was touted to have.”
HIAL’s plan to move air traffic control jobs to Inverness is a good example, he says, of the SNP failing to devolve power to local communities, which is “fundamental to what Labour is about”.
Kerr says: “We know and we understand and we’ve got experience that [if] you put power in local communities then you’re likely to get better buy-in and a better decision.
“It seems to me that the SNP has this predilection for bringing power back to Holyrood, or retaining power, and I think Labour would consistently look to push power out.
“Look at air traffic control, we’re very clear on that – those jobs should not be centralised.”
As to the uniqueness of this pandemic election, despite running his campaign from Glasgow over the past month or so, Kerr feels he has “been able to be very involved… speaking to voters, engaging with people on social media” and speaking regularly to professionals in multiple sectors.
The Covid-19 recovery will be gradual, and while there are factors unique to the islands at play, Kerr emphasises Labour’s priority that no-one is left behind.
“I think 360,000 Scots are under furlough at the moment. They need a reassurance about their job. If you’ve missed a screening opportunity or are anxious about having missed an operation, it doesn’t matter if you’re in one of the big cities or Shetland, the issues are the same.
“People will hopefully appreciate Labour is a party that will look to take not just groups of the country, but will look to take the country forward as a whole – all levels of society – a genuine and fair recovery for all.”
The Scottish Parliament elections take place on 6 May. There are six candidates contesting the Shetland seat. They are in alphabetical order: Martin Kerr (Labour), Brian Nugent (Restore Scotland); Peter Tait (Independent), Nick Tulloch (Conservatives), Tom Wills (SNP) and Beatrice Wishart (Liberal Democrats).
To find out more about all of the candidates standing in the election, including those on the regional Highlands and Islands list, visit our Scottish Parliament election 2021 page here.
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