Challenges of the long distance runner

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by Rona Mackay

If David Cameron wants to see the Big Society in action he should he should look no further than Ullapool in the Highlands.

This tiny harbour town, with a population of just over 1,300, is a microcosm of the Tory leader’s grand concept. The swimming pool, golf course, museum, local radio station, arts centre and village hall are all run by local people doing their bit to keep the community alive and kicking.

Also doing her bit for the community is Jean Urquhart, the owner of the legendary Ceilidh Place and Bunkhouse in the town. Jean is the local SNP councillor for the Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh ward on Highland council – the largest ward in Scotland. She is also challenging Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott’s 5000-vote lead in Shetland at the Holyrood election.

Jean knows all about the complexities of campaigning in a rural constituency and she is also experiencing first-hand the shocking cost of fuel as she travels throughout her vast constituency.

She says: “We can thank our Government for the reduction in the cost of the Stornoway ferry which leaves from Ullapool. It makes an enormous difference to the traffic and the economy of the Western Isles. But the hike in fuel costs is having a dramatic effect on all public services with fuel now reaching £1.45+ per litre of diesel in most filling stations. Public transport is difficult and most folk really do need to have a car, it’s definitely not a luxury here.

“The constituency is enormous, about 60 miles in one direction and 100 plus in another. We cover Gairloch, Lochalsh, Strathpeffer and Ullapool, so I’m always on the move which is very time-consuming. Add in the journeys to Inverness for council meetings and you can see how the mileage can be a significant cost in the working week.

“It’s ironic that we’re geographically so close to all that oil yet we are paying so much for the privilege of putting Scotland’s oil in our tanks. Everything in the country is affected by fuel prices, but the difference here is that the issue comes much more sharply into focus due to the distances we have to cover. The SNP’s policy of a fuel price regulator would have worked well for us.”

Jean is clear on where the challenges lie for her and the SNP. “Labour are at it, they really are. They’re trying to play a clever wee game, hoping to pick up disgruntled Lib Dem votes here. We’re obviously in an area that is regarded as being traditional Lib Dem territory, but it’s only when you look at the make-up of the Lib Dems on the council that you see the lie to that. They’re really only Liberals by name. They owe almost no allegiance to the Lib Dems or their policies and are just a loose collection of  independents hiding under the party umbrella.

“We know that some voters will think twice before voting SNP if they are committed Unionists, but we need to ask them to look at what that voting pattern has delivered for Scotland, both locally and at Holyrood. My instinct is to run a positive campaign, and to point out the achievements our Government has made over the past four years.”

Right now there aren’t enough hours in the day for Jean. She remembers the time when breaking the Lib Dem stronghold in Shetland would have been mission impossible, but she now believes it is becoming achievable. If anyone can do it, Jean can.

Last week the Lib Dems were snuffed out in the Wick council by-election with a 17.8 swing to the SNP which saw the election of Gail Ross.

Jean says: “Voting for the SNP is a different prospect now. I well remember campaigning in Glasgow after Donald Dewar’s death. It was shocking canvassing at times, terrible really. Kids would be shouting, swearing and throwing stones – and that was just the eight-year-olds. It’s different now. We have definitely moved on.

“Labour can no longer rely on the ridiculous scare stories they have depended on down through the years. The SNP has proved beyond all doubt that we are a better option than Labour when it comes to protecting Scotland’s interests. And the Lib Dems? Their time is running out in Shetland… and I hope it does just that on May 5th.”

Reproduced and edited by kind permission of Independence Magazine.