Local Elections / At the Grass Roots: Crofters face exposure to world of party politics: Labour hopes its candidates will change the status quo on the Western Isles, writes Sandra Barwick

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The Independent Online
AMONG the burnt orange and russet hills of Harris and the grey mountain passes of Lewis, visitors to the Western Isles are astounded to see rusting cars rotting into the moss.

It is not merely vistors who object to these. The inhabitants of the Isles are properly proud of their heritage and landscape. Tourism is one of their important industries. Why the local council has not made it a priority to shift these wrecks is a mystery.

But much is mysterious about the Comhairle Nan Eilean, as the council is called in the correct Gaelic, not least how in islands famous for the gift of second sight, none of its members predicted that the act of entrusting pounds 23m reserves to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was a road that would lead to a crash.

On Harris, Alistair Campbell and his wife, Katie, weave the island's famous tweed and sell it to the tourists who find their way down some of the island's dizzying and - with winter's ice - highly dangerous roads.

The Campbells are fortunate in that their three sons have stayed on the island, making their living by fishing, crofting and in one case working on the local car ferry. Keeping the islands' people is a desperate problem.

'We need work and roads,' Mrs Campbell said, 'and employment because the young have to leave, and a lot of them want to be here. It's a good way of life . . but you have to find something else to do, along with crofting.'

The harshness of the climate and the crofting life has created a resilient and sternly independent minded people. The Comhairle has reflected this. Since it began in 1975 it has been non-political. In a string of islands with a population of only 30,000 where each councillor is often likely to know all his or her constituents it is natural that personalities rather than politics should dominate.

This year all that has changed. The debacle of the last few years, and the needs of the islands, which suffer one of the highest council taxes in Scotland have led the Labour Party to put up candidates for the first time.

'We are putting candidates up to give people a choice, getting people to say these are my policies. At the moment there is a policy vacuum,' Callum Ian Macmillan, a crofter and commercial director at Lews Castle College, said, adding that Labour is disappointed the Scottish National Party had not put up candidates too and created more debate.

Fourteen out of the 30 seats on the Comhairle are not being contested. This is partly due to the fact that all those working for the council are forbidden to stand and the council is the biggest employer on the island.

The SNP believes that the old tradition of keeping party politics out of the Comhairle should be continued. There is consternation among some islanders at the Labour Party's move.

On the west of Lewis a crofter said that the local candidate, Alec Macdonald, nicknamed 'Flossie' is unopposed and added: 'Ninety per cent of the people on the ward are satisfied with their councillor - it's not apathy.'

But there are also others who want change. Callum Macmillan was told by one person as he canvassed: 'I hope when you get in you'll elect decent chairmen of committees and decent speakers - so we won't be the laughing stock of the islands.'

There is no question that the problems on the islands demand the best of their well-educated people. Investment is urgently needed. Of the present major employers, tourism is at the mercy of the weather and the tweed industry of fashion. Local fishing stocks have been depleted and though the hillsides are presently bedecked with lambs the bad winter has produced a high death rate among them. The crofters are fortunate to bring in pounds 1,000 a year. Lambs make only pounds 20 a head and fleeces go for pounds 1 each. The cloth that crofters weave, among the most famous and hard wearing in the world, can be bought here for a mere pounds 5 to pounds 7 a yard.

But conservatism, if not Conservatism, runs deep here. Radical schemes can be met with the suspicion of those who know how hard making a profit in the islands can be. Canvassing in local elections is a new idea here and only introduced for general elections in 1987. It was thought people might take offence if asked how they would vote.

The Labour Party manifesto makes the brave proposal that its councillors will demand regular reports on the council's financial position and quarterly reviews of budgets. It hopes that by acting as a group they will able to bring more pressure on and accountability to the council's senior staff. With personality politics councillors are easily fragmented.

The party hopes that its five candidates will bring more democracy to the system.

(Photograph omitted)