Previewing the Harris & South Lewis by-election (08 Oct)

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

At the time of writing, there is one local by-election on 8th October 2020:

Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas nan Loch

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar; caused by the resignation of independent councillor Finlay Cunningham who had served since 2017.

After last week’s successful local by-election it’s time for another one. We are still a long way from the British mainland, but this time the focus shifts from the Orkneys to the west.

Rather far west, it has to be said. We’re on a large island here, the third largest of the British Isles by area (after Great Britain and Ireland). As the name might suggest, Lewis with Harris has a bit of a split personality. Lewis is relatively flat; Harris, covering roughly the southern third of the island, is generally mountainous. Lewis includes the main town of the Outer Hebrides, Stornoway; Harris is sparsely populated. The division goes back centuries to when Lewis and Harris were the lands of rival branches of the Clan MacLeod; Lewis ended up in the hands of the Earls of Seaforth and in the county of Ross-shire, while Harris stayed with the MacLeods and became part of the county of Inverness-shire.

One of the less-visited parts of Lewis is Park, a peninsula cut off from Harris by Loch Seaforth and from most of Lewis by Loch Erisort. Park is a hilly area which is very sparsely populated. The main local industry is crofting, and Park was bought by the local residents in 2015 under crofting “right to buy” rules passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2003.

All the villages and communities in the south of Park were cleared in the nineteenth century, and evacuation of remote areas is a theme running through the history of this ward. Consider the island of Taransay, where people have lived since around AD 300 and which supported three villages into the nineteenth century, but has been uninhabited since 1974. With one prominent but temporary exception: Castaway 2000, a BBC television series which marooned 36 men, women and children on the island for a year to build a community from scratch. The show made a star of Ben Fogle, one of the castaways, who later made an unsuccessful attempt to buy Taransay when it was placed on the market in 2011.

Further out from Taransay, but still traditionally part of Harris, is the oldest of Scotland’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the only World Heritage Site in the UK recognised for both its cultural and natural heritage. This is the remote archipelago of St Kilda, which supports several unusual species of sheep and rodents and a large number of seabirds, but has no human residents following an evacuation in 1930.

In many ways the story of St Kilda is a sad one. Visiting ships brought diseases to the island including cholera, smallpox and childhood tetanus, the last leading to an appalling infant mortality rate in the late nineteenth century; at the same time the advent of tourism and the establishment of a Royal Navy signal station during the Great War disturbed the local way of life. After the war most of the islands’ young men emigrated; that, followed by a series of crop failures, convinced the 36 remaining islanders to leave. There are still people living on St Kilda, working for the National Trust for Scotland (which owns the archipelago), working for the Ministry of Defence (which uses the surrounding seas as a missile testing range), or studying the local flora, fauna and archaeology; but none of those people are permanent residents.

Mind, St Kilda is a metropolis compared to the most remote of all the British Isles. Rockall, a granite islet 230 miles from the Outer Hebrides, was claimed for the United Kingdom in 1955 by R H Connell, the captain of HMS Vidal, mainly in order to stop people going there to spy on those missile tests. Subsequently, Rockall became a point of international controversy over whether this gave the UK rights to an exclusive economic zone around the island; this was a particular bone of contention for the Irish government, which doesn’t recognise the UK’s claim on Rockall. The British, Irish, Danish and Icelandic governments have subsequently come to an agreement on their exclusive economic zones in the North Atlantic, with Rockall placed within the British EEZ; however, the boundaries between British and Irish waters were drawn without taking account of Rockall’s position.

If anybody wants to put the Western Isles’ electoral services team to the test by registering to vote on Rockall, it’s your own time you’re wasting. Nobody has ever lasted on that rock long enough to establish residence within the meaning of electoral law. But if somebody managed to pass the residence test there, there’s a question-mark as to which ward they would end up in. Under the terms of the Island of Rockall Act 1972, Rockall was incorporated into Scotland as part of the District of Harris in the County of Inverness. The 1972 Act was amended the following year to substitute a reference to the Western Isles, following a reorganisation of local government in Scotland. Despite this, Rockall (and indeed St Kilda) were not included on the maps I can find defining the ward boundaries for the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar from the 2007 election. Prior to 2007 St Kilda was part of Harris West ward, which included “St Kilda, Boreray, Pabbay, Shillay, Coppay, Taransay, Glas Sgeir, Cairearn and all other islands along [the ward’s] eastern and western coastal extent”, so I’ll place Rockall in the modern-day ward based on Harris. The Ordnance Survey appear to think St Kilda is now covered by a ward based on North Uist rather than Harris, but I haven’t been able to find confirmation of that.

As can be seen from all that sea, fishing has been very important to the economy of Harris. Which brings us to a slightly mad scheme from a slightly mad but very successful businessman turned politician. No, not Donald Trump (although stay tuned for next week’s Preview, if we get that far…); I’m referring here to William Hesketh Lever, who was born in 1851 in Bolton. Lever went into the family’s wholesale grocery business, but made his name and fortune as the brains and driving force behind the soap manufacturing company Lever Brothers (one of the forerunners of the modern multinational Unilever). Having put Sunlight into all our homes, he was elected as Liberal MP for the Wirral in the 1906 landslide, serving one term in the Commons. In these days of cancellation of historic public figures, we should remember that Lever Brothers had signed a treaty with the Belgian government in 1911 to gain access to palm oil from the Belgian Congo, where working practices were, well, not that great; but focusing on that would miss the point that Lever’s style towards his employees was paternalistic to a fault.

In 1918 Lord Leverhulme (as he had become by that point) bought the Isle of Lewis for £167,000; the following year he bought South Harris for £36,000. He had a plan for developing a modern fishing industry on Lewis with Harris, with distribution across the UK through a network of fishmongers under the brand name of Mac Fisheries. Leverhulme’s plans to recruit crofters for the scheme ran into trouble in Lewis and were quickly abandoned there, but the scheme for South Harris developed to the extent that the fishing village of An t-Òb was renamed in his honour, becoming Leverburgh. Following Leverhulme’s death in 1925, the Lever Brothers board put a stop to this nonsense, and that was the end of the developments on Harris. Mac Fisheries made it into the 1970s, but has long disappeared from the nation’s high streets.

So all this activity left Harris relatively little changed in the end. Today crofting and Harris tweed are important to the local economy, and award-winning gin comes out of the Harris Distillery in Tarbert. From Tarbert there is a ferry connection to Uig on Skye; while another ferry (even on Sundays, sacrilege!) connects Leverburgh to Berneray for North Uist and points south. A majority of the population speak Gaelic, which is reflected in the name of the electoral ward (a rough English translation would be “Harris and South Lochs”).

The Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is the largest of the three Scottish islands councils created in 1975 and left untouched by the 1990s reorganisation. It’s always had an independent majority, but from the 1990s onwards there has been a minority of councillors elected on party political platforms. We see this at the 2003 election, when the two Harris wards elected independent councillors and Lochs ward narrowly voted SNP.

Proportional representation came in for the 2007 election but didn’t change that party balance. Morag Munro, outgoing councillor for Harris West ward, was elected at the top of the poll with 49% of the first preferences; her transfers elected a second independent, Catherine Macdonald, and Philip McLean won the final seat for the Scottish National Party fairly comfortably. Munro retired at the 2012 election, in which Macdonald sought re-election as the only independent candidate and was re-elected with a whopping 62% of the first preference votes, far ahead of the 25% required to win a seat. Philip McLean was also re-elected for the SNP on the first count. With a choice between Labour candidate DJ Macrae and a second SNP candidate, Macdonald’s surplus went strongly to Macrae who won the final seat despite polling just 69 first-preference votes, 9% of the total. 69 first preferences is the lowest winning total for any Scottish local councillor in a contested election this century, although Macrae did pick up another 96 votes from Macdonald’s transfers to make his final score rather more respectable.

Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas nan Loch had a clearout of its representatives at the May 2017 local elections. With a much longer ballot paper of nine candidates (seven independents and two Scottish Nationalists), new candidate Finlay Cunnningham topped the poll with 33% of the vote and was elected on the first count. DJ Macrae polled just 42 first preferences in his re-election attempt and was eliminated in eighth place. A close race developed for the final two seats between independent candidate Paul Finnegan who started on 16.5%, new SNP candidate John Mitchell (15%) and outgoing councillor Catherine Macdonald (14.5%) who were a long way ahead of the rest. Mitchell started the count 6 votes ahead of Macdonald, and once everybody else had been eliminated he won the final seat 18 votes ahead of Macdonald.

Over all nine wards in the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar 2017 election, independent candidates won 23 seats, the SNP 7 and the Conservatives picked up one – their first ever seat on this council. In a blow for equality, the loss of Catherine Macdonald’s seat meant that all 31 councillors were male.

Will that change in this by-election? We shall see. Three candidates have come forward, all of whom are independents. Taking them in ballot paper order, first alphabetically is Grant Fulton who is the only Harris resident on the ballot; based in Leverburgh, he is a development officer for Harris Development Ltd and is concerned by the effect of current circumstances on the ward’s tourist industry. Annie Macdonald, who works in the care sector, lives outside the ward in Laxay but has represented part of it in the past: she was the SNP councillor for the former Lochs ward from 2003 to 2007, then represented the neighbouring ward of Sgir’Uige agus Ceann a Tuath nan Loch from 2007 to 2012 in the nationalist interest. This time she is an independent candidate. Kris O’Donnell also lives outside the ward, in Arivruaich; he is concerned about the future of crofting and, like the other two candidates, opposes the proposed closure of the Park primary school.

Going forward, this ward is likely to be broken up for the next Scottish local elections in 2022. The current proposals are for Harris to become a ward of its own, going down from three councillors to two, with Park and the rest of the Lochs area united in another two-seat ward. It appears that St Kilda will definitely be included in a ward based on North Uist going forward (as stated above, it might be there already). No word on Rockall.

We do need to mention the elephant in the room. The North Isles by-election in Orkney last week was effectively an all-postal affair; this by-election, by contrast, will be the first opportunity to see how polling stations can work in a time of pandemic. There are four polling stations for this by-election, and various additional hygiene measures area in place; in particular, no more than one elector or family group will be allowed into the polling station at any one time. If you are going to cast your vote, have confidence that you will be doing so safely.

Parliamentary and Scottish Parliament constituency: Na h-Eileanan an Iar
Postcode districts: HS2, HS3, HS4, HS5

Grant Fulton (Ind)
Annie Macdonald (Ind)
Kris O’Donnell (Ind)

Andrew Teale