Isles council convener chosen by cutting cards

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When dueling SNP councillors tied in a final vote to become the next convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, they had to draw for it – with a pack of cards.

It was a dramatic end to the first order of business at the first meeting of the new Western Isles council on Tuesday May 17 in Stornoway.

One claimant for the grand ceremonial gold chains of office, independent councillor Angus McCormack of Steornabhagh A Deas, had already been knocked out in the first round, with only six votes from an electoral roll of 26 councillors.

The first poll left the two other hopeful contenders, SNP councillors Kenneth Macleod of An Taobh Siar Agus Nis and John A Maciver of Loch A Tuath, neck and neck with 10 votes each, forcing a second round to decide the victor.

A simple majority of 14 was all that was needed. A pin could have been heard dropping in the plushly decorated chamber, fresh from a £268,000 revamp, as councillors quietly totted up the votes called out in each candidate’s name.

As the end neared, it looked more and more like Kenneth Macleod had it in the bag: John A Maciver was trailing five votes behind, with only five votes still to count. But a sudden surge in Mr Maciver’s fortunes, five votes in a row in fact, robbed Mr Macleod of triumph. The silence of the comhairle was shattered, as one by one the councillors realised the result. Laughter rang round the room.

For the first time in its history, the second round of voting for a comhairle convener had returned a dead heat, of 13 votes each. With no chief executive to give a casting vote for a chief executive, and no further electoral process to appoint one, what on earth did they all do now?

The answer came quickly: a deck of cards was produced –  fates would be decided by lot, or lady luck.

The rules were simple: the two men would take turns to cut the pack, and the highest card won the coveted seat. Aces, for the avoidance of doubt, were high.

We do not know who drew first. Perhaps councillor Macleod’s heart sank when he drew one of the lowest cards possible, a three, and then soared when his opponent, councillor Maciver, who thought it was his lucky night, drew the only lower card: a two.

Or perhaps councillor Maciver, hoping he would be saved again by a last minute intervention, realised his luck had at last run out, when he turned over the lowest card in the deck.

Oh how he must have longed for councillor Macleod to have drawn a two too, sending the election into yet another unprecedented, and this time uncharted, fourth round: maybe a coin toss, or a game of snap.

Alas it was not to be. The stakes were high, but the numbers were low. By the power of a three, councillor Kenneth Macleod was duly appointed convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. It was a tense conclusion to a contest that could not have been closer.

Cutting a pack of cards to decide a tied vote is unusual, but not unprecedented in local government. In December last year, the SNP retained control of Moray Council on the strength of a Jack.