Tavish Scott saw off a spirited challenge from independent candidate Billy Fox to be returned in the early hours of this morning as Shetland’s MSP at Holyrood with a comfortable, albeit significantly reduced, majority.
Mr Scott won just under a 50 per cent share of the vote, polling 4,462 votes to give him a majority of 1,617 over Mr Fox, who won a 30 per cent share.
Standing primarily on an anti-Viking Energy ticket, the former BP worker achieved a highly creditable 2,845 votes, comfortably the best performance of any second-placed candidate in this constituency since the Scottish Parliament’s inception in 1999.
On what was shaping up to be a great night nationally for her party, the SNP’s Jean Urquhart came in third place with 1,134 votes, though that was down almost 500 votes on Val Simpson’s performance four years ago.
Labour’s Jamie Kerr managed to just about maintain his party’s vote with just under seven per cent backing him.
His 620 votes represented only a slight drop on four years previously and left him comfortably ahead of Tory candidate Sandy Cross. A disappointing showing for the Conservatives saw him win just 330 votes, leaving him 1.5 per cent short of the threshold to avoid losing his £500 election deposit.
Despite a dry, calm day of weather the turnout was disappointingly down from 59 per cent to 54 per cent, perhaps partly because in 2007 the Scottish ballot took place on the same day as local government elections.
Once the first ballots began filtering through at the Bowls Hall in Clickimin late last night, it quickly became apparent that Mr Scott was heading for a fourth successive victory, with Mr Fox coming a clear second with more votes than the remaining three candidates put together.
In his acceptance speech after returning officer Jan Riise confirmed the result at the Bowls Hall in Clickimin, Mr Scott – who arrived at the count at around 2am having decided to follow his party’s declining fortunes nationally elsewhere in Lerwick – described it as “one heck of an honour” to be given the opportunity to represent Shetland once again.
“A win and being re-elected tonight is something that I’ll take given what’s happening elsewhere tonight,” he said, in a nod to his party’s poor performance nationally. Although the Lib Dems also held on to Orkney, the party was facing near extinction as far as other constituencies were concerned.
“It shows that Shetland wants an MSP who has a track record of getting things done, knows how the parliament works and how to make it work for Shetland.”
Describing the campaign as “pretty spirited”, Mr Scott suggested that some candidates “may wish to reflect on how they have conducted themselves” but said he was “very comfortable and very proud of the campaign that my local party has fought”. “I’m very grateful for the huge support I’ve had around Shetland from both party members and party supporters,” he said.
Mr Fox said he had was “feeling quite happy” with his performance and said he remained of the opinion that there was a “mood for change” in Shetland politics, which he hopes will harden over the next few years.
“I’m totally inexperienced and standing as an independent,” he said. “Independents traditionally don’t do well. But to make such inroads into such a strong majority has to send out a message. There’s a hidden Lib Dem vote out there that’s entrenched. It’s very negative for Shetland because the main political parties don’t see any mileage in Shetland, because it’s such a safe seat.”
His biggest disappointment, however, was the low turnout. Mr Fox said there was a “degree of apathy which we will have to change if we want to change Shetland politics”. In his speech from the platform, Mr Fox said: “This result marks a sea change in Shetland politics. It is not my doing but an expression from the Shetland folk that change is needed.”
One of Mr Scott’s first actions in the new parliament will be to urge the energy minister in the new government to reach a quick verdict on Viking Energy – an issue which, along with the unpopularity of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition at Westminster, probably cost him many of the 2,000 or so votes he lost between 2007 and 2011.
“The advice from civil servants will be on the desk of whoever becomes energy minister,” he said. “Shetland deserves a decision. Frankly we should have had one before the election and I’m frankly puzzled about why that didn’t happen.”
There had been speculation that despite Mr Scott’s huge majority, Mr Fox might even manage to oust him. But the victor said he was “never anxious” about losing his seat, mainly because feedback he had received on doorsteps in recent weeks had been so positive.
“I’ve been on the right side of the issues that matter to people, about fuel and the costs that we face, making sure that transport services are appropriate for the islands and on the worries over centralisation of services.”
The contest having turned into a two-horse race some weeks ago, it was not surprising for the other three main party candidates to see their share of the vote squeezed.
Ms Urquhart acknowledged she was “never going to go from zero to being elected in three weeks” but said her presence had at least allowed SNP supporters to vote for their party. She believed her party had shed votes to Mr Fox and joked that she wished she hadn’t lobbied for Mr Fox to be included in the BBC hustings debate.
“It has been a privilege to be a candidate and a very worthwhile exercise coming here,” she added. “Shetland weaves its magic. What’s clear is our votes went to the independent candidate, not to Labour or the Lib Dems.
“It’s clear the best thing for any party is to have someone living on the island. It was never going to be easy to get to know me in three weeks. You have to sell yourself as a credible candidate. If I’d had a year …”
On what was shaping up to be a bad night for Labour across Scotland, Mr Kerr said he felt his campaign had been “high profile and energetic”. His father James Kerr said it had been a “good experience” for his son. “Obviously the national background made it difficult for us,” Mr Kerr Jnr said. “Tavish’s vote is down and the Tory vote has collapsed.”
A disappointed Mr Cross said he had found the campaign “very enjoyable”, adding he felt the Viking Energy factor had cost him votes. “I’d have had a better result but the windfarm issue has split our campaign,” he said. “I hope my part in it has contributed something useful to the debate. Whatever shade or hue of Lib Dem we end up with, having a slightly more balanced political scene would be a good thing in my view.”