As hands hover over ballot papers and consciences battle with tactical urges this polling day (Thursday, December 12th), Island residents made their commitment to the democratic process clear this week, at a lively hustings debate in Stornoway town hall.
One hundred seats were filled with folks poised to hear the views, ideas and vision of the political candidates hoping to win their backing and secure the Na h-Eileanan an Iar constituency in today’s ballot.
The event was hosted by Lews Castle College UHI, with the aim of ensuring that as many people as possible could see, hear and assess for themselves, the condition and vigor of the political horses lining up in this 2019 General Election race.
Questions had been collated by the college from members of the public and students to put the candidates’ views to the test.
To kick the event off a three-minute opening statement from each candidate - in alphabetical order - presented their motivations for standing, or gave a hint about the spine of their arguments.
Scottish Labour candidate Alison MacCorquodale - with a light tremor in her voice - admitted that she was slightly terrified in addressing the audience, but what terrified her more was that there would be no change in the political landscape in the next five years.
She added: “I have to stand and do this, you need to be part of the change.”
Her honesty and commitment to working hard for the constituency, as well as the presentation of her party’s manifesto, which hopes to deliver for the ordinary working person, especially ordinary working people in the Islands landed well with the hustings crowd. Whether that message has also found its mark on the campaign trail to overturn the SNP majority in the Islands remains to be seen.
SNP candidate Angus MacNeil talked of how Brexit would not be done, as the Conservative Party are suggesting.
He highlighted that the UK leaving the EU under WTO (World Trade Organisation) terms would be the most damaging outcome.
He said: “Any deal the Tories come up with would be worse than being in the Single Market.”
He described how a deal with the US would only be worth a fraction of the trade that we do with the EU and that the country would need 40 such deals with 40 different countries to come near to what we currently enjoy.
He also made the case for independence by pointing to the success of other independent countries close to us - Norway and Ireland - and that we should aim to emulate their success.
Scottish Liberal Democrat candidate Neil Mitchison urged young people to step up to the ballot box and vote this time around, or else they could not complain about the result.
He said: “The only way to resolve Brexit is to stop it, we are looking for a mandate from the country to do this, although the polls suggest this is not likely at the moment, we would work in a hung parliament to put the Brexit question back to the public.”
He added that the SNP wanting an Independence referendum for Scotland before the Brexit question is resolved was not a good idea.
He declared that the SNP, who claim they could do more if they had more power from Westminster, had neglected to do more with the powers they currently have.
Scottish Conservative and Unionist candidate Jennifer Ross described the feedback from the public on the campaign trail in Stornoway.
She said: “In one afternoon I spoke to around 30 people and I could only find one in support of another Independence referendum for Scotland.”
She declared that she was the only candidate who will respect the referendum result and said that she will be an influential MP with the ear of Government, who will work in areas such as gaining a better future for the fishing industry outside of the EU.
She also highlighted that the local authority in the Western Isles had suffered a poor funding settlement from the Scottish Government and talked of working with MSP colleagues towards securing a better local authority settlement.
Question - population decline and jobs
Amongst a wide range of topics were issues very relevant to the region such as:
‘How do we reverse population decline’ and its twin-sister ‘How do we create more jobs in the Islands’.
In answer a Growth Deal for the region was highlighted in some detail and support for businesses (Conservative candidate, Jennifer Ross);
Real living wages of £10 per hour for anyone over 16 and £100bn of investment in Scotland, which would result in investment for the Islands (Labour candidate, Alison MacCorquodale);
Talk of better connectivity and how we need to catch up to areas such as the Faroes, which had 4G a decade ago, and also pointing to the success of the Nordic countries where when everything is secure there is better wages for workers (SNP candidate, Angus MacNeil);
A boost to the economy of £50bn, if there is no Brexit, which will enable investment (Liberal Democrat candidate, Neil Mitchison).
Question - Renewable energy and fuel poverty
Another question resonating well was:
‘Global warming, what we can do locally to tackle it, as well as reducing fuel poverty’.
This sparked talk about the importance of the interconnector to the region and the vision for renewable energy creation in the Islands.
In answer the point was raised that there should be maximum community benefit to the Islands in regards to renewable energy creation (Labour candidate, Alison MacCorquodale).
Arnish should and could be used in the renewables industry and a commitment towards securing the interconnector for the Islands (SNP candidate, Angus MacNeil).
Commitment to offshore energy creation and a manifesto dedicated to renewable energy (Conservative candidate, Jennifer Ross)
Reduce emissions by insulating homes and reforestation of the Islands, so that the area becomes carbon negative (Liberal Democrat candidate, Neil Mitchison).
Question - Islands’ transportation links
Continuing to fuel the energy of the debate was a topic on Islands’ transportation:
‘Should the Islands have tunnels to connect them to each other and to the mainland’.
On this subject it was underlined how the Islands need to up our game and have the vision to follow the example of the Faroes, who are building tunnels, which may be expensive but would replace ferries (SNP candidate, Angus MacNeil).
The viability of tunnels was an economic question and would boil down to how much they cost (Liberal Democrat candidate, Neil Mitchison)
Tunnels need to be realistic, how would they be paid for? This would not be possible if the SNP secured Independence and crippled the Scottish economy for a decade, as they tried to get back into the EU (Conservative candidate, Jennifer Ross).
We need to be looking at ferries rather than tunnels and the Scottish Government needs to listen to the communities of the Western Isles on this subject (Labour candidate, Alison MacCorquodale).
Questions also touched on much wider exploratory topics, such as:
‘Would the candidates choose to pay WASPI women (of which there are 1,900 in the Western Isles) or invest in Trident’ (which lead to the candidates declaring whether or not they would push the nuclear button).
‘How many referendums do we need’ (where Brexit and another Independence referendum for Scotland reared their heads).
And questions such as ‘Did the candidates support a woman’s right to choose on abortion’, a surprising question perhaps for this particular election, but it offered up an insight to the candidates’ integrity.
Hustings are interesting - they may be necessarily light on details due to time limits - but there is a chance to assess the candidates’ performance and whether they can communicate their message well and engage the audience.
Will this particular event contribute to a political upset in the Islands?
We will see what the ballot boxes reveal on Friday the 13th.