Friday, 11 May 2007

Lessons must be learned after voting fiasco

Published: 11 May, 2007
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

THANKS to a swelling band of you, dear readers, the massively improved SNP vote in the Far North has sent me to Holyrood to serve you for the next four years. It is a privilege in our proportional system to be returned.

After a marathon count first for the constituency, then for the council seats, finally, at around 5.30pm on Friday – some 18 hours afters the polls closed – the Highlands and Islands total was collated to complete the list placings for the nation.

It was a huge relief for tired candidates and officials, but one postponed for a very long half-hour by the most bizarre malfunction of a polling system that had produced many long-predicted problems to plague this year's vote.

The arithmetic of the list votes under the de Hondt system should surely be on a computer program, you would think. But it seems not, for the candidates gathered were presented by the returning officer, Highland Council chief executive Arthur McCourt, with an unbelievable result that gave Lab-our four seats, the Tories two and my partner Eleanor Scott of the Greens a return berth. All present were incredulous, so we asked to see the workings on paper.

My colleague Dave Thompson, an arithmetic prize-winner at school, soon spotted the mistake at the first division that threw out the whole calculation.

After more pencil and paper work, the final figures on the list were three Labour (they had lost their last Highlands and Islands constituency seat), two Tories (they haven't won a seat in this region for many years), and two SNP – myself and my arithmetically acute friend Dave, which the huge SNP list vote indicated.

Lessons must be learned quickly to restore trust in the poll organisers. Surely the basic jobs expected of returning officers should not end with an A4 sheet and peering at eight-point type after most people had little more than three hours' sleep in the previous 48. The implications of a wrong announcement could have led to a court case. They would have denied the SNP its victory over New Labour for days or weeks to come. The momentum of building a new government would have been stalled.

So voters here and across Scotland need answers. Also there were 759 spoilt papers in the Far North list poll. There is a major grievance with the Scotland Office in London and the Lib/Lab Scottish Executive in Edinburgh who allowed big changes in voting procedure to be so shoddily laid out and rearranged. They put in place the national contract for producing and distributing postal ballot papers that left many disenfranchised.

I chased the authorities in some individual cases and have drawn my own interim conclusion that the time allowed to publish the parties contesting the poll and the production and distribution of the papers was far too tight. But it's a lesson that even folk who have had postal votes for many years suffered as much as holiday-goers applying at the last moment.

The Scotland Office minister in London, Douglas Alexander, at whose door this chaos lies, was seen at House of Commons Scottish Questions on TV to blame anyone else he could for the fiasco.

Therefore I wholeheartedly agree with a letter-writer in The Herald this week who pointed out that Mr Alexander was "the same chap who was touring the country telling us we could not manage our own affairs".


SINCE the outcome of the historic poll which defeated Scottish Labour for the first time in 50 years, Alex Salmond has been seeking partners and support to form the next government. Whilst we were sworn in two days ago, the Unionist parties are each in turn standing aside from acceptance of the results.

It seems their lack of support for an Alex Salmond-led government would seek to deny the solution to many bread-and-butter issues that we heard Messrs McConnell, Stephen and Miss Goldie trumpet in the whole campaign. Instead the excuse is that the key SNP policy of a referendum in 2010 on Scotland's independence is far more important.

As I campaigned across Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross I found many who want an SNP government to act now on domestic matters and who well understand that the merits of independence could be debated in 2010. What they wanted now was an end to the hated council tax and the liberation of small businesses from swingeing rates, along with action on unfair fuel prices and the wilful neglect of transport, housing and low pay. Uncertainties were commonplace about cash needed for Dounreay decommissioning and the importance of keeping its skilled workers gainfully employed in the North. Folk were saying we need a strong steer from a Scottish government that cares for the area because the DTI in London clearly could not care less.

In short, people vote in elections to seek solutions to pressing issues. As the biggest party chosen by Scottish electors on May 3, 2007, the SNP is committed to tackling these tasks with imagination and fresh ideas. It will be a positive benefit to North voters that so many have told me they want so badly.

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