Previewing the North Isles by-election (01 Oct)

“All the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order”

After over six months of silence, it’s time to welcome readers back to the Britain Elects website for a fresh new edition of that supposedly-weekly blog which takes readers all over the country to talk about by-elections to local government. A rather difficult thing to do these days, given that some of these things are now illegal in various parts of the UK. Nevertheless, with a remit to bring you all the right votes, but not necessarily in the right order, this is Andrew’s Previews. We have a by-election to bring to you, and it’s time to go on a journey which for most readers will be to somewhere longer than the distance to your COVID test centre. We’re going north, and we’re going offshore…

North Isles

Orkney Islands council; caused by the death of independent councillor Kevin Woodbridge, who had served since 2017. A former GP from the island of North Ronaldsay, Woodbridge was the chairman of the Orkney Ferries board and ran a bird observatory.

And when I say offshore, I mean offshore. Orkney North Isles ward is easy to define: it’s all the islands north of the Orkney Mainland. Of which there are rather a lot: there are eleven inhabited islands and a number of smaller islets, linked to Mainland and to each other by a series of ferries and air links.

In population terms, the largest of these islands is Westray with 451 residents on the local government register (this is Scotland, so Votes at 16 apply in local elections). Lake many of the islands here, Westray goes back a long way: there are Neolithic remains on the island from five and half millennia ago, and Westray has proven to be a fruitful area for archaeologists. The goods and structures found by the diggers aren’t all Stone Age either: the Vikings and Norsemen (who controlled Orkney until the fifteenth century) left remains behind as well, while if you like big historical buildings there’s the unfinished Noltland Castle which is one of the most impressive castles in the archipelago. Fishing and agriculture are the main local industries, with Westray Wife cheese (named after a recently-unearthed Neolithic statuette) being a prominent export. And there is tourism, with draws including the UK’s longest golf hole (a 738-yard par 6, created by a recent refurbishment of the island’s golf course) and the world’s shortest passenger flight. Loganair planes from Westray to the neighbouring island of Papa Westray make the journey in comfortably under 90 seconds of flying time.

The smallest and most remote of the North Isles is North Ronaldsay, with 53 electors on the roll. Given that the island’s primary school’s only pupil graduated in 2017, we can see that this represents almost all of the population. New families with young children are being sought to keep the school open. The sagas record that Hálfdan, son of the Norwegian king Harald Finehair, hid on North Ronaldsay after murdering Rögnvald Eysteinsson, before being discovered there by Rögnvald’s son and sacrificed to Odin. North Ronaldsay has also been a graveyard over the years for a number of ships, and because of its hazards to navigation there has been a lighthouse here since the eighteenth century. The shores of the island are patrolled by a unique animal: the North Ronaldsay sheep, which has evolved to exist on a diet primarily of seaweed. With all that salt in its diet, North Ronaldsay lamb and mutton is described as having a tangy taste.

In recent years Orkney has become a major centre for renewable energy, to the extent that the local grid now has an energy surplus. Community-owned wind turbines have sprung up on many islands, while the European Marine Energy Centre have harnessed the power of the waves and currents: every tide drives a series of turbines off Eday for the local energy grid. Opposite the tidal power station is the small island of Egilsay, where the Earl of Orkney Magnus Erlendsson was murdered in the early twelfth century. A pious man, Magnus was subsequently canonised as a martyr, and he is now considered as Orkney’s patron saint; a ruined church on Egilsay and the cathedral in Kirkwall are dedicated to him.

Westray, North Ronaldsay, Eday and the eight other main islands form a remote and far-flung electoral ward where transport is difficult and often at the mercy of the weather. Because of these geographical difficulties, the North Isles are significantly over-represented on the Orkney Islands council, forming a ward with three seats even though the number of voters here only strictly justifies two councillors. Orkney is having a boundary review at the moment following the passage of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018; however the draft proposals from the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland leave this ward and its three seats unchanged going forward.

North Isles ward was created in 2007 when Scottish local government went over to proportional representation. In Orkney, PR didn’t matter so much for partisan balance – the islands have the population of a large parish council and non-party politics to match – but the reform was nonetheless welcome because it ensured that every ward saw a contest when election time came. In 2003, under first-past-the-post, nine of Orkney’s 21 councillors had been elected unopposed, including both councillors for the main predecessor wards to North Isles.

That changed in 2007 when nine independent candidates stood for the three seats in the new North Isles ward. One of them was Stephen Hagan, outgoing councillor for Papa Westray, Westray and Eday, who dominated the election with 41% of the first-preference votes and was elected on the first count. New candidate Stephen Clackson started in second place with 14%, well short of the 25% required to win a seat, and did very poorly on the transfers; he was immediately overtaken by Sam Harcus, who started on 12% and did well out of Hagan’s surplus votes. Harcus was elected on the penultimate count, and his surplus votes gave the final seat to Graham Sinclair who had started fourth with 11%; Sinclair beat Stephen Clackson by two votes, 213 to 211. Stephen Hagan subsequently became the convenor of Orkney Islands council.

In the 2012 election Harcus retired and the field narrowed to four candidates. Hagan again topped the poll with 41%; Stephen Clackson picked up Harcus’ seat, polling 29% and being elected on the first count; and their transfers again saved Sinclair, who had started in fourth place but finished the count 12 votes ahead of Gillian Skuse.

There was less drama in the 2017 election when Stephen Hagan retired, putting a lot of his votes up for grabs. Eight candidates stood. After scraping in on the final count in the previous two elections, Graham Sinclair was re-elected at the top of the poll with 27% of the first preferences. Hagan’s seat went to new candidate Kevin Woodbridge, who polled 24% and won the second seat. Stephen Clackson started the count in third place with 18% and was re-elected comfortably for the final seat ahead of Stuart McIvor, who started on 11%.

One unique feature of the North Isles’ elections is the very high postal voting rate. Although Orkney Islands council has divided the ward into eight polling districts, it only organises one polling station for the ward and that’s not situated on any of its islands: it’s at the St Magnus Centre, next to the cathedral in Kirkwall. Not many of the islands’ voters can make the effort to travel to Kirkwall to cast their votes at the polling station. In the 2012 local elections just 18 out of 1,055 votes were cast in person; 16 of those were from Shapinsay, the closest island to Kirkwall, and the other two were from Rousay, the closest island to Mainland. All the rest were absent votes. Over 80% of the North Isles electors are registered for postal votes, and there’s no reason to expect a sudden upsurge in in-person voting for this by-election.

So this poll will not tell us much about how polling stations can work in a time of pandemic. The count, which will be held in Kirkwall on Friday, is another matter entirely. The returning officer and his staff legally have to do the count in the presence of the candidates’ polling agents at an absolute minimum, but how does that square with Scotland’s restrictions on gatherings? I don’t know the answer to that and I’ll be interested to find out.

This will be third by-election in Orkney since PR was introduced, and the other two also broke new ground. The 2014 by-election in Kirkwall West and Orphir ward was affected by the death of independent candidate Laurence Leonard shortly before polling day; but because the Cormack amendment applies to Scottish local elections, the poll went ahead. Leonard finished fourth and last with 5%, the first and so-far only time that a UK local election has gone ahead with a deceased candidate. The 2015 by-election in West Mainland ward saw an OMG moment as party politics broke out: the OMG here is the Orkney Manifesto Group, a reform movement which won the by-election and went on to win two seats in the 2017 Orkney local elections. The Green Party also broke through into the independent-dominated council chamber three years ago, taking one of the three seats in the ward of East Mainland, South Ronaldsay and Burray.

Party politics has broken out in this by-election too with the nomination of Coilla Drake as an official Labour Party candidate. Drake, a former carer who lives on Westray, was the Labour candidate for Orkney and Shetland in the Westminster general election last December; on that occasion she finished fourth, with 7% of the vote. She’s the first Labour candidate in an Orkney local election since 1986. Drake is up against three independent candidates whom I shall take in the reverse of the order they appear on the ballot paper. Heather Woodbridge, the 26-year-old daughter of the late councillor Kevin Woodbridge, is seeking to follow in her father’s footsteps; if elected, she would become the youngest ever member of Orkney Islands council. Claire Stevens is an engineer and RAF veteran from Eday. Completing the ballot paper is Daniel Adams, who gives an address in Kirkwall; like Stevens and Woodbridge junior, he is fighting his first election campaign. The Alternative Vote applies in this by-election, so first preferences may not be the whole story – we shall find out when the votes come out of the ballot boxes on Friday morning.

Parliamentary constituency: Orkney and Shetland
Scottish Parliament constituency: Orkney Islands
Postcode district: KW17

Daniel Adams (Ind)
Coilla Drake (Lab)
Claire Stevens (Ind)
Heather Woodbridge (Ind)

Catchup

The Orkney North Isles by-election is going ahead at all because Scotland has different rules to England and Wales when it comes to local by-elections. In England and Wales, by-elections don’t just happen: they have to be called, and this is done by two electors (ten electors for parish vacancies) writing to the Returning Officer to ask for a by-election. Usually the defending parties organise this within a reasonable timescale. Once the returning officer gets the call, he or she has a legal duty to organise a poll within a fairly tight timetable and has no power to stop it. Readers will recall that when the pandemic started a number of by-elections were cancelled regardless; this was because the returning officers involved were assured that they would be indemnified against any resulting breach of the law, and the Coronavirus Act 2020 delivered on that promise.

Subsequently, Westminster and the Welsh Government have promulgated legislation to postpone all future by-elections into next year. In Wales, no by-elections will happen until February at the earliest; in England, everything has been put back to the next scheduled local elections on 6th May 2021. The result of this is that there are now over 200 council seats vacant in England, some of which have had by-elections pending since November 2019; and that number is only going to rise. I understand that around ten of those vacancies are a direct result of COVID-19.

These vacancies have consequences that go beyond the obvious ones of electors being left unrepresented. Northumberland council is a man down at the moment after one member of the Conservative group was elected to Parliament last year; in September, the Conservative leader of Northumberland was no-confidenced by 33 votes to 32 following a whistleblowing scandal, although the Conservatives are still in minority control there. The multi-party coalition running Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole council recently fell in a confidence motion brought by the opposition Conservatives, after two councillors supporting the coalition died and the administration’s majority went with them. In Crawley, the death of a Labour councillor and the defections of two others led to the Conservatives becoming the largest party; but a bizarre situation has developed as the Crawley Conservatives have declined to seek the council leadership for themselves.

In Scotland, things are different in that the returning officer has full control over the by-election process. Once the RO becomes aware of a vacancy, he has to fill it within three months and has the power to set the date himself within that period – there’s no sitting around waiting for the local politicians to tell him to start the clock. Because of the public health emergency, the normal three-month deadline has been extended to 6th May 2021. There are currently thirteen council vacancies in Scotland, all of which had by-election dates scheduled in October or November; however, the returning officer for the Scottish Borders has pushed her poll in Leaderdale and Melrose ward (which was originally pencilled in for May this year) back from the end of this month to a date in March 2021. This column is keeping a close eye on the other twelve vacancies to see what happens to them.

I’d like to finish this week on a personal note. For obvious reasons, it has been a while since the last edition of Andrew’s Previews. The hiatus, I’m afraid, has not been a pleasant one for your columnist. The simultaneous collapse in March of all my hobbies, activities and friendship networks has left me desperately lonely and profoundly depressed at the state of things. There’s been a lot of focus not just on physical but on mental health during this difficult time, and as someone whose state of mind has been generally poor over the last few months I would like to echo that. Don’t lose your mind over things you can’t control. Talk to somebody.

The good news is I do still retain a full-time job and the virus, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t got me yet. I hope that will remain the case for you as well. All being well, this column returns next week with another offshore trip to a different Scottish island. Stay tuned for that.

Andrew Teale