ALEX Salmond raised the stakes in the crucial Glasgow East by-election yesterday, placing himself at the helm of the SNP charge and declaring it a referendum on the popularity of the Westminster and Holyrood governments.
The First Minister moved to take tomorrow's knife-edge election beyond local concerns and invited voters to cast their ballots based on the SNP's first year in power in Edinburgh and the 11 years of New Labour in London.
By doing so, he pitched himself into a head-to-head contest with Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, challenging voters to look not at the by-election candidates but at the performances of the two political heavyweights.
Mr Salmond, who is due to make his 11th visit of the campaign to the constituency today, stuck by his earlier prediction that his party was set to trigger a "political earthquake".
He said: "It's a test of strength between two governments. On balance, most people are pretty satisfied with what they have seen from the SNP government in Edinburgh thus far.
"It's a test of strength between two governments and, if the Prime Minister can get to Glasgow East, I would be very happy to have an individual debate with the Prime Minister.
"Any by-election is a test of every party that contests it. One aspect of this election is a tale of two governments. People are passing judgment, clearly, on the Labour government at Westminster, but they're also passing judgment on the SNP government at Scotland. That's as it should be."
Professor John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said he was surprised the SNP had not adopted the "two governments" approach from day one of its campaign.
The political analyst told The Scotsman: "The SNP have not really succeeded in making it a contest about the relative merits of Gordon Brown or Alex Salmond. That strikes me as an argument that ought to be one of the SNP's strongest cards.
"They have not really developed a continuous theme of Alex Salmond versus Gordon Brown and forced Margaret Curran (the Labour candidate in Glasgow East] to defend the record of the government, as opposed to her being able to act as the local advocate."
Mr Salmond refused to bow to bookmakers' predictions of a Labour victory, saying: "If you put 1 on every favourite at every race meeting today, you would end up losing money."
He said his party, which is seeking to overcome a 13,507 Labour majority from the 2005 general election, had made "enormous progress". He added: "I think the earthquake is on track, on course and it's coming."
With today the last day of campaigning, Mr Salmond was "fighting for every vote" and did not mind if those backing the SNP tomorrow opposed its central policy of independence. He predicted a SNP victory would lead to more concessions from the UK government to ease the cost of living, and said a Labour defeat was unlikely to spark the Prime Minister's resignation. "A by-election is a chance to send a message," he said. "The strongest message is the best one."
Outlining the cost-of-living theme that he believes is central to doorstep unpopularity with the government at Westminster, he said: "This is the first by-election for 20 years where rising prices and cost of living has been the dominating theme. You see that anywhere you go – the price of bread, milk, butter, eggs, petrol, derv, gas, electricity.
"I don't think there is a single person in this constituency who isn't disappointed with the Labour government at Westminster."
Labour believes Mr Salmond's efforts to set himself alongside the Prime Minister in a "beauty contest" is an extreme form of vanity from the First Minister.
A Labour spokesman said: "Someone who wants to turn the entire by-election into a referendum on his own popularity shows levels of vanity unseen for even Alex Salmond.
"This is about who is going to represent people of the East End of Glasgow and articulate the needs of the community best and help regenerate the area."
Experts believe Mr Salmond knows he is in a "win-win" situation – an SNP victory would be a crushing blow to Mr Brown, while even a narrow defeat would be portrayed as an endorsement of the Nationalist government at Holyrood.
Prof Curtice said: "If the SNP only get a 10 per cent swing, the Labour Party would be delighted. That would be, in the current political context, a remarkably good result.
"If the swing is something in the order of 15, 16, 17 per cent, that would be more or less as bad as Crewe and Nantwich (when Labour lost a seat with a 7,100 majority to the Tories]. We will say the SNP couldn't find the extra mile required to pull off a spectacular by-election victory."
Meanwhile, The Scotsman has learned that SNP activists plan to be out in force on polling day, amid claims they fear a "dirty tricks" campaign from Labour supporters designed to sway voters as they enter polling stations.
This would include "misrepresenting" the party's policy on free bus passes, which the Nationalists fear could scare off Labour voters thinking of switching to them.
Labour brushed this aside – saying the claim of dirty tricks was a dirty trick in itself.
Its tactic is to seek to undermine John Mason, the SNP candidate, who it believes is prone to gaffes – such as hinting that he would vote with the Tories at Westminster – when he has not had the First Minister or his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, alongside him for advice.
leaflets handed out
visits by party leader
miles walked by Margaret Curran, the party's candidate
posters put up on lamp posts
telephone calls made
hands shaken by Ms Curran
leaflets handed out
visits by party leader
miles walked by John Mason, the party's candidate
posters put up on lampposts
telephone calls made
hands shaken by Mr Mason
On streets of Glasgow East, voters dodge camera crews but welcome resurgent political debate
THE constituents of Glasgow East have, as Harold Macmillan once said, "never had it so good". Pushing poverty, unemployment, and life expectancy to one side for a moment, the voters have instead basked in the unprecedented media spotlight which has led them to dodge cameras crews on their way to the shops and open the door to Cabinet members.
So how have they coped with being the most scrutinised constituency in Britain, bestowed by fate with the power to unseat a Prime Minister?
"I've rather enjoyed it," said Derek White, 35, a civil engineer who first appeared in The Scotsman three weeks ago predicting a Labour defeat.
"People have been talking about who they are going to vote for and it's been surprising. A lot of the older generation, the parents of friends, people who have voted Labour all their lives, are now talking about voting SNP.
"People have been having their own wee debates. It's been really interesting."
A resident of Craigend, Mr White insists it is an area that Labour has forgotten.
"I walk to the bus stop and all I see are SNP banners or flags. I haven't seen a single Labour flag nor have I received any campaign literature. It's all been from the SNP."
Meanwhile, on Shettleston Road, Christine Pratt, 28, has been visited by representatives of all the parties and has herself campaigned for John Mason.
She said: "All the candidates are pretty impressive – they are in it for the right reasons. Margaret Curran visited my partner's construction firm. He said she seemed nice."
Nice or not, Mrs Curran is not getting the family's vote, but Ms Pratt believes the campaign has re-energised interest in politics. "The banners are out, the vans with loudspeakers have been up and down the street, people are talking again. It's good."
Yet as each voter troops to their polling station tomorrow, some are more uncertain than others. George McGuire, 45, a gardener who voted SNP in the last general election, believes that a victory is beyond the Nationalists' grasp. He said: "I'd love to say yes, but in my heart I think it's a swing too far. I just don't think it will happen."
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