The Liberal Democrats will aim to learn lessons from its newly-elected Shetland MSP to help replicate the electoral success in the isles throughout the rest of the country.
That is the view of Scottish Lib Dem leader, Willie Rennie, who has spoken exclusively to The Shetland Times about what last week’s Shetland election result will mean over the long-term.
The Lib Dems are trumpeting “stonking results” in Orkney and Shetland, as well as other seats down south.
But the party is still very much a minority at Holyrood, coming behind even the Green Party once constituency and regional seats are taken into account.
How, then, can Mr Rennie ensure the Lib Dem voice is heard during the life of the parliament?
The answer, says Mr Rennie, lies in securing a consensus with the minority SNP government on key issues that affect the isles.
“We’re very good at getting our own way,” he said.
“We work constructively with the government. In the last five years when the SNP had a majority we were still able to persuade them to invest in nursery education, for instance, for two-year-olds, which for a long time they were dead against.
“It is the same on college funding – we managed to get more funding put into the college system. On mental health as well, we’ve been very persistent on that issue.
“We’re good at punching above our weight, mainly because we engage constructively, we can be relied upon to stick to what we say we’re going to do in the Scottish Parliament.”
Mr Rennie said the building of relationships with the SNP will give the Liberals a “good chance” in helping deliver cheaper ferry fares, ensuring the discard ban that affects the Shetland fishing fleet is properly addressed and school funding concerns are given an adequate airing.
“Those things we’ve got a good chance of bringing to the government’s attention and getting a fair hearing – especially because they will now, in part, rely on our votes to get some of their programme through.”
The hope of securing cheaper ferry fares will be a key priority for many. The ink on the newsprint declaring the Scottish election results had hardly run dry when a petition was launched calling for a fairer deal on ferry fares (see separate story).
Many have voiced frustration that fares on the ferry services to the Western Isles have been cut, while those to Orkney and Shetland have not.
A repeated argument from within SNP circles was that the formula for the Road Equivalent Tariff used to calculate the fares to the Western Isles would actually result in an increase if implemented here. Mr Rennie says that argument should no longer stand.
“I know that it doesn’t really work for Shetland, but to have a scheme for the isles on the west but not in the north is unacceptable.
“They can call it whatever they like, but as long as it leads to a reduction in the fares… Just because you’re in the north doesn’t mean you should be penalised.”
Mr Rennie welcomed the 67.1 per cent backing given to Mr Scott, who polled 7,440 votes in last week’s election against his closest rival, the SNP’s Danus Skene who was backed by 2,545 of the electorate.
Mr Rennie said the election night showed the party, nationally, had “turned the corner”, even if it did result in the same number of MSPs as before.
“The nature of the results felt like a big win for us,” he said. “We recognise there is a lot of personal vote for Tavish within that – that it’s not all just endorsement of Willie Rennie’s manifesto.
“Tavish is a very good representative for Shetland and will always put Shetland first. He isn’t the party representative in Shetland, he’s the representative of Shetland down in Edinburgh. That’s the way he’s always viewed it and that’s the way to do it.
“I’m feeling optimistic that we can replicate Tavish’s performance in the north in other parts of Scotland. I’m not promising to get 67.2 per cent of the vote in Glasgow, but if I can get an increase in the vote in Glasgow then that will suit me. I think there are a lot of lessons we can learn from Tavish that we can replicate elsewhere.”
Mr Rennie said he detected a “moot change” away from the SNP in the isles.
“Tavish worked incredibly hard, and he was probably campaigning harder than he has before. I just detected that he was going to do well. To get 67 per cent of the vote is just outstanding and a great tribute to all that work.”
All of which might come as a surprise given the backlash from some quarters against the Lib Dems last year following the controversial election of MP Alistair Carmichael and its bitter aftermath.
Mr Rennie said the end result was that people had not been persuaded against the Lib Dems, and that any “campaign” against the Liberals had backfired.
“I’ve seen from social media some of the vitriol that came from it. All I can say is it’s pretty clear it’s not worked, if that was their intention. I don’t think their campaign succeeded.”