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Election / ‘The size that fits all is never going to fit us’ – on the election trail with Lib Dem candidate Carmichael

Brae resident Helen Balfour and Lib Dem candidate Alistair Carmichael discussing local politics. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

“I HAD hoped for not another election in December, but being out knocking on people’s door during this June weather is not much different,” Lib Dem candidate Alistair Carmichael jokes as we walk through Brae into a drizzle that quickly makes you feel miserable.

Over the next two weeks Shetland News will be joining all the candidates actively out on the election trail to find out first-hand what are the issues and topics on local folk’s minds.

It’s not the most effective way of canvassing, Carmichael concedes, and generally he spends far too long speaking to people – at least that is what party strategists tell him.

But there is no substitute to talking to people directly, looking them in the eye, and getting a good feel for how the land lies.

The incumbent MP defends a solid majority of 45 per cent against Robert Leslie of the SNP who came second at the last election in December 2019 with 34 per cent of the vote.

And as he has been saying ever since he was first elected as the Orkney and Shetland MP in 2001 in one of the safest parliamentary seats for the Lib Dems, he is taking nothing for granted and puts in some solid shifts visiting most of the 30 or so inhabited islands and speaking to people face to face.

One of the main topics that came whenever a door was opened was transport and the reliability and cost of it, but also the difficulty in booking a cabin on the ferry when needed.

Broadband speeds, the environment, climate change and the lack of a proper community stake in the ongoing and planned energy developments were other issues raised.

And a very specific topic for Brae was the proposed rural energy hub, planned at the village’s youth centre next to the local hall, which people claim the community has not properly been consulted on.

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Bob Clark: happy to pay more taxes in return for better services.

Bob Clark was surprised to have the isles’ MP, now candidate, knock at his door. He moved to the isles from Kent three years ago and is delighted to have done so.

He enjoys the community spirit and local health services that are much better resourced and less overcrowded than what he had to endure in the south of England.

And he is not afraid to name one of the big political taboos: taxes. Referring to the recent drop in the National Insurance rate, the 59-year-old says he would rather pay more in return for better services than having that extra money in his pocket.

Helen Balfour, a few houses down the road, highlights the difficulties of getting on and off the islands, something that is essential not just for travel but for fully participating in modern life.

And overlooking at least 30 turbines to the south of the village, soon all turning, it is a painful reminder to many that apart from a community benefit fund worth just over £2 million annually, Shetland has no stake in the project while the ‘fair transition to net zero’ seems to be far off.

So, how does the candidate for the Lib Dems respond to what he has heard?

Some recognised him straightaway and assured him of their family’s support, while others responded in a more guarded fashion to that knock on the door.

But he will have sensed a decent level of support from his canvassing in the North Mainland village.

Alistair Carmichael in Brae: Decisions are being made made ‘for us by people who do not understand us and what it means to live here’. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

There clearly was a degree of appreciation for the work he has done over the last 23 years, and with it an assurance that following the 4 July election, he is likely to continue in this job for another five years.

“The cost of living still causes people an enormous amount of concern and is issue that presents itself in almost every other issue,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be an election Shetland if we were not talking about transport, but more than ever it is not just about the frequency and the quality of the service, it also is about the cost.

“Housing, although it is not a Westminster issue, is still the policy area where development and growth in Shetland is being held back especially for younger people but not exclusively so.”

And speaking more generally, he added: “The anxiety that everybody has in Shetland, and in Orkney, is that decisions will be made for us by people who do not understand us and what it means to live here.

“The size that fits all is never going to fit us. We are not looking for handouts or special treatment, we are just looking for treatment that gives us the same opportunities as the rest of the country.

“But forcing us into a box that everybody else has to sit in holds us back – this could be the design of your future ferry service or something as trivial as the policing of an Old Firm game night in Lerwick.”

The other candidates standing in this election are in alphabetical order: Alex Armitage (Greens), Robert Leslie (SNP), Shane Painter (Tories), Conor Savage (Labour) and Robert Smith (Reform).

More about the candidates and our election coverage so far can be found here.

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