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Election / General election count: live from Kirkwall as Carmichael wins

Photo: SIC

WELCOME to Shetland News’ live coverage of the Orkney and Shetland general election count here in Kirkwall.

Our reporter Chris Cope has taken the trip to Orkney to bring you updates through the night from the Kirkwall Grammar School, with the declaration of the Northern Isles’ next MP expected later on – perhaps around 5.30am – but that is subject to change.

In addition to live updates will we bring you some analysis and commentary along the way.

If you weren’t already aware, six candidates are standing in the Orkney and Shetland consistency.

They are, in alphabetical order: Alex Armitage (Greens), Alistair Carmichael (Liberal Democrats), Robert Leslie (SNP), Shane Painter (Conservatives), Conor Savage (Labour), Robert Smith (Reform UK).

Although voting closed at 10pm, you can still check out the candidates’ election statements they provided to Shetland News here.

That’s a wrap at the Kirkwall Grammar School, as people swiftly leave no doubt to their beds.

Thanks for following the live blog – we’ll have some more reaction to the result later online.

Carmichael received 11,392 votes, with the SNP’s Robert Leslie securing 3,585 votes to come in second.

The Greens’ Alex Armitage came third with 2,046 votes, with Reform UK’s Robert Smith – who said he would not actively campaign – gaining 1,586 votes.

Labour’s Conor Savage got 1,493 votes, with the Conservatives’ Shane Painter securing 586.

RESULT: Alistair Carmichael wins the Orkney and Shetland election for the Liberal Democrats.

Still waiting on the declaration here in Kirkwall…

Nationally Labour has now secured a majority – locally we’re still waiting on the declaration, with the result expected soon.

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On a national level Labour continues to gain, while the SNP is losing seats.

SNP leader John Swinney told Sky News that it has been a “very difficult night” for his party.

The turnout for the election is 60.74 per cent, which is down by around seven per cent on 2019.

A total of 20,794 votes were cast in Orkney and Shetland.

One person who is an expert on local elections in years gone by is James Stewart, who has created a Shetland politics history project.

He said the Orkney and Shetland constituency offers some unique challenges – something he knows closely given that he once worked for the isles’ MP.

“Whomever is elected to represent Orkney and Shetland will quickly come face-to-face with the unique logistical challenges posed by representing such a separate and spread out constituency,” Stewart said.

James Stewart.

“When parliament is sitting, they will fly down to London for the week, before returning on Friday.

“There are, of course, no direct flights from either Orkney or Shetland’s airport to London, so this twice-a-week trip means that by the end of the week, they’re on their fourth flight. Every week. Possibly for five years!

“Our future MP will also have a family home based on one of the islands, but need to split their time between both, so at the end of a busy week in London, you might not even be flying home to see your family and sleep in your own bed.

“Having worked for the isles MP from 2012-2015, I bore witness to this gruelling routine. The distance between the isles may have shrunk since regular flights began between them, but the challenges posed by representing the UK’s northern outposts has been known for centuries.

“The early 1800s saw local Shetland elites campaign for Orkney and Shetland to elect separate MPs. Back in those days, a letter posted to Orkney from Shetland went via Leith!

“In an election punctuated by boundary changes, Orkney and Shetland hold the unique record of having been unchanged since 1701. However, the initial arrangement completely disenfranchised Shetlanders.

“It was not until the Reform Act of 1832 that Shetlanders were able to vote in Parliamentary elections. In the 192 years since, the isles have also been one of the most consistent in terms of party representation.

“Other than Thomas Balfour (1835-37), Cathcart Wason (1900-1902) and Sir Basil H. H. Neven-Spence (1935-50), Orkney and Shetland have been represented by a Liberal party member – over 90 per cent of the years since the Reform Act.

“The 2015 Scottish National Party candidate, the late Danus Skene, who polled only four percentage points behind Alistair Carmichael, is the closest that the ancient constituency has come to being represented by a third party.”

Alistair Carmichael.

Liberal Democrat candidate and favourite for the election Alistair Carmichael is in the building.

He felt his campaign had  “strong message” in terms of his own record as a member of parliament – which stems back to 2001 – and also the future too.

Carmichael also said his campaign team went out to more of the constituency than “anybody else”.

He said it is a case of “fingers crossed” that the Lib Dem campaign again struck a chord with the electorate.

Meanwhile the sixth candidate, Reform UK’s Robert Smith, is not present – with the word being that he is on holiday.

One thing which stood out to many when Orkney and Shetland’s six candidates were confirmed at the start of the June was the lack of women standing – something that tends to be reflected across local politics at a council level too.

Shetland Islands Council leader Emma Macdonald said it is “unfortunate that we don’t see more women standing, but I think it’s understandable”.

SIC political leader Emma Macdonald. Photo: Shetland News

“I think politics is often viewed as being a difficult place for many people to see themselves, not just women.

“When you consider the toxicity we see within politics and the inaccessible nature of how our parliaments function, late night sittings, unable to vote remotely in Westminster for example, none of this is likely to encourage a wide range of diverse people to want to be part of it.

“Over the past few years, politics has not had the best reputation as being a positive force for good. We need to see more collaboration in both our governments and less negativity, in my opinion, and one way to do that is to encourage more diversity into our political spaces and more women.

“Whatever happens at this general election, I hope it’s an opportunity for politics to move forward with a positive approach that encourages people to participate from all areas of life.”

Although generally there can be a lack of diversity, most of Shetland politics’ top jobs are currently held by women – Macdonald as the SIC leader, Andrea Manson as convener and Beatrice Wishart as MSP.

SNP candidate Robert Leslie is one of the later arrivals at the count but he says he’s been feeling a little under the weather.

Nevertheless he said the election campaign in Orkney and Shetland has been a largely “well mannered” one with plenty of chance to knock on doors given that it is the summer.

The Orcadian said that if there is a “good showing” for the SNP in the Northern Isles it shows that there is a “still a recognition of a need for powers closer to the issues”.

His party has regularly come second to the Lib Dems in local elections.

SNP candidate Robert Leslie.

For fans of ballot boxes in planes – Loganair has released their own photo from inside the plane which took Shetland’s votes to Orkney.

Photo: Loganair

They’re here! Shetland’s ballot boxes have arrived in Kirkwall after their flight from Shetland. They were accompanied by depute returning officer Jan Riise.

Key issues

With the Covid pandemic and the cost of living crisis taking hold since the last Westminster election in 2019, there has been an increased focus on the cost of living during the campaign.

Shetland News joined as many of the candidates actively campaigning as possible out on the election trail in recent weeks to see what folk on the doorsteps were thinking.

We were not able to arrange a feature with Conservative candidate Shane Painter while Reform UK’s Robert Smith was not actively campaigning.

Labour election candidate Conor Savage.

Meanwhile Labour candidate Conor Savage says he has had a “fantastic campaign”.

He said wanted to say a “thank you to everyone who has spoken to me and met me” over the last number of weeks.

While the exit polls suggest Labour could be set for a landslide victory in the UK, Savage said it was too early to comment on the national picture.

The Conservatives’ Shane Painter says he has “really enjoyed” his campaign.

He said he has engaged with the fishing, oil and gas and crofting sectors.

Nationally the exit polls suggest the Conservatives look set to lose out to Labour – something Painter said was disappointing. However, he said there could be gains for the party in Scotland.

Conservative election candidate Shane Painter.

Depute returning officer Jan Riise boarding the plane with ballot boxes in Shetland.

Image: FlightRadar

Shetland’s ballot boxes are now en route to Orkney…

The last MP before Alistair Carmichael was the Lib Dems’ Jim Wallace, who was in the role between 1983 and 2001.

He has given Shetland News his reflection on his experience of his first election campaign in the constituency, more than 40 years ago.

“My first election campaign in Orkney & Shetland in 1983 is well etched in my memory,” he said. “I had only been selected as Liberal candidate a few weeks before the election was called and was on a steep learning curve. I was also very conscious of the Liberal tradition which I was following in.

“Jo Grimond had not only been the Isles’ MP for 33 years, but he was also a major national figure, having been Leader of the Liberal Party for ten years. It was a daunting act to try and follow.

Church of Scotland moderator designate Jim Wallace was Orkney and Shetland’s MP from 1983 to 2001. Photo: Church of Scotland

“I addressed 57 public meetings across the whole constituency. No one turned up in Voe, so my agent, Laura Grimond, suggested we should find the nearest pub and talk to people there.

“In Bressay, an Anderson High School pupil called Tavish Scott didn’t hold back in asking me questions; whilst my Labour opponent, Robina Goodlad from Scalloway published a cartoon depicting her three opponents – Winnie Ewing (SNP), David Myles (Conservative) and myself with the caption: “Shetland welcomes visitors”.

“I approached polling day with some trepidation. No constituency polls in those days, and whilst I knocked on doors, there were no systematic canvass returns. Moreover, when driving back across Yell, two days before polling, someone had painted on the side of a barn: “No Jo – No Vote”.

“The count in Kirkwall was on the day after polling and the ballot boxes flown down on the scheduled BA flight. I had agreed to go to the count at about 1pm, but around noon, my Shetland sub-agent Alistair Easton called to say things were going quickly and I should get there very soon.

“At that time, the secrecy of the count was far more rigidly enforced, so I couldn’t ask him what the result was looking like. However, I asked him how he was feeling? ‘Deliriously happy,’ he replied. I was duly elected with a majority of 4,150, and thus began the great privilege of representing the Northern Isles for the next eighteen years.”

The Loganair plane which is due to take Shetland’s ballot boxes to Kirkwall has arrived in Sumburgh. It will be filled up before heading back south again.

Image from FlightRadar.

Mathew Nicolson is something of an expert on local elections, given that he has a PhD in Scottish island political history and runs the ShetlandElects Twitter account.

We asked him for his predictions and analysis of the 2024 campaign – and he believes the result may not come as much of a surprise.

“The Liberal Democrats appear on the cusp of another election victory in Orkney and Shetland,” Nicolson said earlier this week.

Mathew Nicolson.

“Since Jo Grimond returned the constituency to the Liberal fold in 1950, the party has won a majority of the vote about half the time.

“In the elections where Liberal support dipped below 50 per cent, they benefited from a fragmented opposition, preventing any single challenger from emerging to unseat them in the first past the post system.

“This changed in 2015, when the SNP’s post-independence referendum surge allowed the party to come within four points of victory in the islands’ closest election since 1945.

“Since then, the SNP vote has fallen back, a trend which appears likely to continue this year. This fragmentation should help the Liberal Democrats even if they can’t win an outright majority. A strengthened Reform UK and a local Green candidacy for the first time since 1987 will likely produce further voter division.

“Unfortunately, there have been no constituency polls of Orkney and Shetland. However, we have a near endless stream of constituency projections applying national polls to the islands, some using sophisticated demographic models.

“In these projections, the Liberal Democrats have an average vote share of 44 per cent while the SNP average 22 per cent with Labour in third at 16 per cent.

“Of course, national polling cannot pick up any local campaign dynamics, so these figures can only offer a tantalising glimpse of how Orkney and Shetland might vote. Still, the SNP’s electoral setbacks have clearly given the Liberal Democrats some local breathing room, and at this point it would be a major national upset if Alistair Carmichael were to lose the seat.

“The Liberal dominance of Orkney and Shetland shows no signs of coming to an end.”

Photo: SIC

Candidates and party representatives are allowed to keep an eye on the counting. Thanks to Bob from Shetland Islands Council for the photo.

What happened last time?

At the last Westminster election in 2019, Alistair Carmichael secured 44.8 per cent of the votes (10,381) to maintain his run as MP.

In second was the SNP’s Robert Leslie with 34 per cent (7,874), while the Conservatives, Labour and the Brexit Party followed behind.

Green election candidate Alex Armitage. Photo: Shetland News

The Greens’ Alex Armitage was one of the first candidates at the count.

He tells us he has had “great feedback” from constituents during the campaign – but it remains to be seen where the Greens will fare in the results in the morning.

“I’m amazed at how much support we’ve got both from people on the doorstep and new members joining,” Armitage said.

“It feels like this is the start of a big movement in Shetland and Orkney, particularly in Shetland, for a new kind of politics.”

That’s all the ballot boxes from Orkney arrived at the count – with Shetland’s starting to make their way on their journey to Sumburgh Airport.

Here’s a quick video of the first ballot box being emptied.

The first ballot box is here – from Kirkwall West and Orphir – and counting is well underway. The photo at the top of the page shows the SIC’s Anne Cogle opening the first box.


Returning officer Oliver D Reid opening the 2024 general election count at the Kirkwall Grammar School.

The counting has started off with postal votes,  but Orkney’s ballot boxes are expected to arrive shortly.

Following exit polls, nationally there are now predictions that Labour will secure a landslide victory in the UK election.

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