Too close to call

ALEX Salmond has retained his lead over Jack McConnell in the battle for Holyrood - but it is down to a wafer-thin margin.

According to the latest and last Scotsman/ICM opinion poll of this crucial campaign, Labour has made significant progress into the SNP's lead.

The SNP is still ahead - by 2 per cent on the constituency vote and 1 per cent on the regional vote - but only just. This would leave just one seat between the two main parties if the poll results are translated into votes tomorrow.

The SNP would have 43 seats to Labour's 42, with the Liberal Democrats on 23, the Conservatives on 17, the Greens with one and the others three.

ICM found that support for the SNP has remained largely static since The Scotsman's last poll, conducted at the start of the five-week campaign, while Labour's support has grown.

The poll found that the Nationalists are now on 34 per cent (up two points) on the constituency vote and 30 per cent (-1) on the regional list vote. However, Labour has seen its vote go up, to 32 per cent on the constituency vote (+5) and to 29 per cent on the regional list vote (+2).

The Liberal Democrat vote has been squeezed, apparently because the contest has increasingly been seen as a two-horse race. Its support fell by three percentage points to 16 per cent on the constituency vote and by one point to 16 per cent on the regional list vote.

One interesting factor, however, is the extraordinary difference in the way men and women vote for the Liberal Democrats.

The party enjoys the support of 20 per cent of women in Scotland, but only 10 per cent of men, something Mr Stephen has been very well aware of, which is why he has been pushing so hard on his children and families agenda.

The Conservatives have seen their support remain relatively static at 13 per cent on both votes (which is no change for the constituency vote and a rise of one point on the regional list).

The clear message from the poll is that Labour's vote has hardened over the past month. It does now appear as if the relentless attacks, by Jack McConnell and other senior Labour figures, on the politics and costs of independence have worked, at least in bringing back some wavering Labour voters.

The idea behind Labour's campaign was to portray this contest as a "big election", to persuade people that their vote is vital to the future of the country - regardless of their views on Tony Blair or the Westminster government, and this appears to have been successful.

The SNP relied on an opposite strategy, arguing that Scots could vote SNP without having to decide on independence, and the Nationalists were quick to raise Westminster issues such as Iraq and Trident, matters they knew would resonate with disillusioned Labour voters.

Alex Salmond also decided to spend as much time as possible meeting voters and as little as he could talking to the press - aware that he was less likely to be tripped up campaigning than he was at a press conference.

What this poll shows is that, while Mr Salmond has not made any gaffes and nothing has been done to undermine the SNP campaign, his low-profile approach has not succeeded in building up the SNP vote.

One intriguing part of the poll is its reflection of the fact that more and more people have decided it is important to vote. At the start of the campaign, only 48 per cent of voters said they were certain to vote. By last weekend, when this last poll was conducted, that had risen by ten percentage points to 58 per cent. That suggests that turnout will be higher this year than the 49 per cent recorded in 2003, and that an increasing number of voters see this as a crucial election.

Although the poll shows Labour gaining ground on the SNP, senior Nationalists were privately delighted last night because it will prevent any last-minute complacency and give their activists the motivation necessary to fight hard for every vote.

Angus Robertson, the SNP's campaign director, said: "We are delighted that the SNP has maintained a clear lead throughout this campaign and remains on course to become the largest party. The SNP is taking nothing for granted and is working hard to secure the new government Scotland needs."

Labour will also be pleased by the poll, which shows that the party has narrowed the gap considerably with the SNP, and the election is now in the balance.

Speaking on STV's Scotland Debate programme last night Mr McConnell said: "We are in a very tight contest in the last week. There are thousands of people across Scotland making up their mind in these last 48 hours. I think it's now neck and neck - very close - with thousands of people still to make up their minds."

Mr Stephen, for the Liberal Democrats, said: "The polls are showing the Liberal Democrats gaining six seats compared to last time. Our focus on positive policies that will make a real difference to the lives of families and children is striking a chord."

A Conservative spokesman said: "In 24 hours we will have the real poll and the lesson of the last eight years is that when the people cast their votes, we outperform our predictions. The length and breadth of Scotland, more and more people know there's only one party fighting for stronger devolution within a stronger UK."

Another key feature of this poll is the squeeze on the smaller parties.

About 6 per cent is needed for each top-up seat and, with just 4 per cent on the regional list, the Greens would end up with just one seat - Robin Harper in the Lothians.

However, a Green spokesman said: "Polls rarely get anywhere near accuracy on the Green vote, but we are still looking forward to the election because people will realise that the only way they are going to get action on green issues is first vote Green."

The poll also suggests that Solidarity's Tommy Sheridan might get returned in Glasgow, Independent Margo MacDonald in Edinburgh, and Jean Turner, the hospitals' campaigner, in Strathkelvin and Bearsden.

But this would leave the Scottish Socialist Party facing a total wipe-out, as well as the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party and all the other smaller parties who had hoped that the regional list system would give them a chance of electoral success.

Late surge sets up nail-biting race to the line

SCOTS will go to the polls tomorrow in what looks like a nail-biting fight to the finish between Labour and the SNP.

If Labour can persuade some of its disillusioned supporters to swallow their doubts and back the party nevertheless, it might still just deny the SNP top spot. But if the disillusioned stay away, the SNP should be able to claim a historic victory.

Our ICM Scotsman poll shows that during the course of the campaign the SNP lead has fallen from five to two points on the constituency vote and by four to just one point on the regional vote. These leads might just be enough for the SNP to emerge narrowly ahead of Labour - but, if so, only just.

This narrowing of the SNP lead since our last poll has not been occasioned by any significant fall in Nationalist support. Its vote is actually up two points on the constituency vote and only down one on the regional vote. So there is little sign that Labour's attacks on independence have finally hit home and persuaded voters to abandon the Nationalist cause.

But Labour does appear to have strengthened its own support. Its vote is up five points on the constituency vote and two points on the regional vote. But what remains in doubt is whether it can realise this support in the ballot box tomorrow.

ICM's poll suggests around one in five voters are still not sure how they will vote tomorrow.

Contrary to what has been claimed elsewhere, this is not a particularly high figure. Much the same proportion said they did not know how they would vote in ICMs final poll before the last UK general election.

But this group is very distinctive. Far more of them tell the pollsters they voted Labour in 2005 than said they voted for the SNP.

The experience of past elections suggests that, in the end, around half of the "don't knows" will return to their former fold.

Labour badly needs this to happen tomorrow. For if it does not, the SNP might be as much as seven points ahead on the constituency vote and four on the regional ballot.

Meanwhile, the SNP have to worry about the Greens. In a tight race, the SNP's ability to come first in seats will depend crucially on how many list seats they can claim.

The more list seats the Greens claim, the fewer that will be left for the SNP to win.

According to ICM, the Greens are on just 4 per cent, somewhat below what they need to keep most of the seven seats they currently have.

But if they should manage just a couple of points more they would keep most of their seats - and, in so doing, possibly deny the SNP the position of largest party.

The Liberal Democrats, too, can hope to profit if the Greens fall back. Although down on our previous poll, they could still secure 23 seats, well ahead of the Conservatives who seem destined for fourth place despite the widely praised performances of Annabel Goldie, the Conservatives' Scottish leader.

But there is at least one piece of good news for all the politicians: turnout may well go up.

No less than 58 per cent now say they are certain to vote - ten points higher than just a month ago.

Whether the campaign has affected the outcome is unclear, but at least it seems the close fought election has helped persuade voters that tomorrow's vote does actually matter.


Chief whip: 'We'll give Tony Blair a kicking'

NATIONALISTS yesterday cast aside their self-imposed vow of modesty to predict they would give Tony Blair "a helluva kicking" tomorrow.

The SNP has painstakingly avoided appearing overly triumphalistic ahead of the vote, despite showing a consistent lead in polls.

But in a Westminster debate on the state of the Union to mark its 300th anniversary, Pete Wishart, the SNP's chief whip, swept aside the SNP's bragging ban to tell Labour MPs to "go home and prepare for defeat".

The people of Scotland had decided "50 years of the dead hand of Labour is coming to an end".

He warned that the polls would also be a disaster for the Chancellor in his own backyard, adding: "He is going to be defeated - what kind of prime minister is he going to be then?"

He appeared to invite the Lib Dems to form a coalition with the SNP 48 hours from polling day, when he said: "A finer bunch of people you will never meet in Scottish politics. I very much look forward to coming to an arrangement with our Liberal colleagues."

And of the Prime Minister, he predicted: "We are going to give him a helluva kicking on Thursday... The Scottish people will have their say on this Prime Minister. It's not going to be a pretty sight."

The prediction could prove embarrassing for the SNP, whose lead on Labour has dramatically narrowed according to today's poll in The Scotsman.

Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dem front-bencher replying for his party, gave a warning to Mr Wishart. "In Scotland, one can often go from spring to winter without enjoying a summer or an autumn. He should be a bit more cautious on anticipating the wishes of the electorate."

Labour immediately seized on the gaffe, comparing it to the performance of Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, in his triumphal 1992 Sheffield rally just days before he suffered electoral defeat.

David Cairns, the minister for Scotland, said the SNP's mask had fallen off to reveal the "ugly arrogance of a party that thinks it has the voters in its pocket".

He accused the party of deceit by not declaring its projected income from North Sea oil and what a couple living in an average band D house would have to earn before they start to pay more under the SNP's local income tax plans.

A Labour source said: "They have broken their no-smirking ban, but with little justification. It could still all go disastrously wrong for the Nats."


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