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Politics / ‘You can achieve things in opposition’ – re-elected MP Alistair Carmichael confident a change in political culture will be beneficial for the isles

Isles MP Alistair Carmichael during election campaigning in Brae last month.
Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

LOBBYING the new Labour government to make progress on some of Shetland’s most pressing policy areas will start this week, according to re-elected MP Alistair Carmichael.

The Lib Dem politician was returned for the seventh time since 2001 to serve as the Northern Isles’ MP and to continue a liberal tradition that goes back until 1950 and beyond.

When he returns to London from his Orkney home on Monday morning, Carmichael will be looking for a senior position within the largest ever parliamentary Lib Dem group.

The 59-year-old said what that role would be was for the party to decide but, more generally, he said he is looking forward to “hearing more liberal voices in the political debate both inside and outside parliament”.

At 72 MPs – up from a meagre eight in the last parliament – the Liberal Democrats have become the third largest party in the Commons.

With that comes extra opportunities to challenge the new government, such as the right for the party’s leader to ask two questions every week at prime minister’s questions – an advantage that was used to great effect by the SNP in the last parliament – as well as being called earlier in debates.

“In the last parliament I shadowed 16 ministers at one point,” he told Shetland News during an interview at the weekend. “Now we got enough people to share that burden, and I am quite looking forward to that.

“Whatever role I am taking within the party, the opportunity to do less and do it better is quite a refreshing one.”

However, with a whopping Labour majority it might well prove difficult for any opposition party to hold the new government to account and negotiate policy concessions on topics that matter to Shetland and Orkney.

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Carmichael is nevertheless confident that with a change in the political culture reasonable and rational arguments are more likely to be listened to than in the previous 14 years of Tory rule.

He is also convinced that there is an advantage in striking early and using the vacuum that exists while power moves from one party to the other.

“I already got a lot of the connections with people who will now be government ministers,” he said, adding that he will work using those connections to try to move things forward for the benefit of the Shetland community.

He also feels that prime minister Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, could be an ally as she “has shown a real interest in Shetland and in projects like the spaceport”.

“You can achieve things in government, and you can achieve things in opposition, and I am optimist to be able to move some stuff on,” he said.

“You got short term and medium to long term projects such as tunnels: the short-term aspect is to get a commitment now to get things moving but the actual construction itself and the use would become medium to long-term.”

He said he was hoping for an “adult conversation” on tunnels and the future of the ferry service with the community, the Scottish Government and the new UK Government all in one room.

“If everybody presses the reset button here, then we can have a better relationship and we will see a bit of progress as a consequence,” Carmichael said.

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael,

And referring to the Brexit trade agreement that caused so much damage to the local fishing industry and allows EU fishing boats to fish in UK waters until 2026, Carmichael said this was an issue he was “keen to get his teeth into” ahead of the treaty’s review which “is coming down the track next year”.

“This is now a moment if we are careful and clever with our asks that we could possibly undo some of the damage he [former prime minister Boris Johnson] did.”

However, what the result of the general election demonstrated more clearly than ever, is the need for electoral reform, the veteran Lib Dem politician said.

While on this occasion the Lib Dems played the ‘first past the post’ voting system to their advantage winning 72 MPs with 12.2 per cent of the vote, Labour gained 63 per cent of the seats (412 out of 650) with just 33.7 per cent of the national vote.

The Tories meanwhile would have won significantly more than the 121 seats they secured had Reform UK not entered the fray, splitting the vote on the right allowing Labour to win a landslide.

Reform UK meanwhile got 14.3 per cent of the vote – more than the Lib Dems – while gaining only five MPs.

Carmichael said: “If first-past-the-post ever worked at all, it only ever worked back in the days when you had the overwhelming majority of the country contested by two parties and won by two parties.

“You now got a much wider range of political voices represented, and the two parties who scooped the pool have just 57 per cent of the vote.

“This cannot be ignored and has to be answered now.

“Keir Starmer has a real opportunity here to demonstrate real leadership and authority if he was going to turn round and say as a democrat ‘I can see that this is an unacceptable state of affairs, and I am prepared to move on it’.”

The Orkney and Shetland MP also expressed concern about people having been unable to vote because they have no ID or brought the wrong ID to the voting station, or – if they had opted to cast their vote by post – never received their ballot papers in time.

There are also the millions of migrants who live, work and pay taxes in the UK, who are unable to vote in the general election.

“It is not acceptable that people lose their vote like this,” Carmichael said. The turnout in the Northern Isles constituency was down seven per cent to 60.7 per cent.

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