FOR the first time in 70 years, elections in Shetland have become genuinely competitive. After decades of electoral dominance by the Liberals and LibDems, the recent rise of the SNP has led to several closely fought races between the two parties.

The LibDem majority in the Orkney and Shetland Westminster constituency was slashed in 2015 from 10,000 to just 800 as part of the SNP’s “tsunami” across Scotland – the Isles’ MP Alistair Carmichael only narrowly holding his seat. The LibDems were able to regain ground in subsequent Westminster and Holyrood elections but continue to face competition from the SNP.

In 2019, the LibDems held Shetland’s Holyrood seat in a by-election with a majority of 16 percentage points over the SNP, while Alistair Carmichael’s majority later that year was down to 11. These are still considerable leads for the LibDems but, after 2015, they mark the second- and third-closest results in Shetland since 1950.

In this competitive landscape, the emergence of a new political party in Shetland could have a major impact on future elections. The recently announced Shetland Regional Democratic Party (SRDP) is calling for Shetlanders to have “a proper, accountable voice in Holyrood and Westminster” to “put democratic accountability back into the hands of Shetlanders”.

Fronted by popular local councillor Ryan Thomson, who achieved a respectable third place as an independent candidate in last year’s by-election, the party is currently in the early stages of being established.

This would not be the first time Shetland has had its own political party. In 1973, a short-lived movement called the Shetland Democratic Group contested local council elections largely on the single issue of opposing the then county council’s policy towards oil developments. Despite Shetland’s tradition of non-partisan local government, they almost seized control of the council chamber.

The Shetland Democratic Group disbanded shortly after, but later in the 1970s Shetland saw the formation of the more substantial Shetland Movement.

This group campaigned for Shetland to gain autonomy along the lines of the Isle of Man or the Faroes. The Shetland Movement elected a number of councillors through the 1980s and 1990s and also contested the 1987 General Election in an alliance with the Orkney Movement, which similarly campaigned for autonomy.

The movements won 15% of the vote in this election, helped in part by the SNP’s decision to stand aside in their favour.

The movements would later dissolve in the 1990s, having failed to achieve their central aim of formal autonomy, but these results indicated a significant minority of islanders were prepared to support a party based in the islands and focused on local issues.

More recently, in the aftermath of the 2014 independence referendum, an organisation called Wir Shetland was founded to renew the campaign for autonomy in Shetland. It also proved short-lived and collapsed after only a couple of years, but it demonstrated continued interest in the principle of a political movement for Shetland.

The SRDP would appear to endorse a more “regional” focus on Shetland within the existing constitutional settlement rather than campaign for autonomous status, as these earlier movements sought to do. It hopes to capitalise on disillusionment with the “mainland parties” and a widespread perception that power has been too centralised in Edinburgh and London

What might this mean for future elections? The SRDP is unlikely to win the Shetland constituency and has yet to confirm if it will contest the seat in 2021. Nevertheless, it could still have an important impact on future results.

We can look to Ryan Thomson’s campaign in last year’s by-election for an indication of his new party’s likely voter base. The SRDP’s aim of providing a representative voice for Shetlanders mirrors the themes Thomson emphasised in his campaign, which finished with 11% of the vote. It is reasonable to assume that the party may be able to rely on at least some of these voters in a future election.

That Thomson and SNP candidate Tom Wills both made gains in the by-election while the LibDems lost almost a third of their vote suggests that Thomson’s campaign likely drew more votes from the LibDems than the SNP.

Vote transfers between elections are often more complicated than they seem at first glance but you can also see this trend at a local level. In the wards where Thomson performed best, Shetland North and his native North Isles, the LibDems saw fewer votes than might otherwise be expected.

Political researcher James Stewart, who helped co-ordinate Thomson’s by-election campaign and previously worked for Alistair Carmichael, agrees there is “no doubt” that the LibDem vote share would suffer from the presence of this new party.

Thomson’s neutrality on the independence question during the by-election likely also appealed more to former supporters of the LibDems. If the SRDP does take off, its presence is more likely to harm the LibDems than the SNP. This could help open the door for a future SNP candidate to build on the party’s recent gains and ultimately win the constituency which has so far evaded their grasp.

If recent polling trends in Scotland continue, which show the SNP surging ahead while the Liberal Democrats lose further ground, a close result in Shetland is certainly possible. Nevertheless, both the SRDP and the SNP face an uphill struggle to dislodge the Liberal Democrats from their 70-year dominance in the islands.

Mathew Nicolson is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, specialising in modern Scottish history. He has conducted research into the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement and his latest project looks at island politics in the postwar era.