SNP triumphant ... but now real power play begins
Check the state of the parties
THE SNP won the first election in its history in dramatic fashion yesterday, condemning Labour to defeat in Scotland for the first time in 50 years and changing the face of British politics for ever.
The Nationalists emerged as the largest party in the Scottish Parliament at the end of two chaotic and tense days of voting, counting and confusion.
The SNP secured a wafer-thin victory over Labour, by only one seat, with the result coming down to the final declaration from the Highlands and Islands.
In an election that was marred by the most serious problem with invalid voting papers that the country has seen, it took until 6pm yesterday - 20 hours after the polls closed - for Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, to claim victory.
His party won 47 of the 129 seats at Holyrood, with Labour one behind on 46. The Conservatives were third, with 17 MSPs, while the Liberal Democrats took 16 seats. The Greens were down to two MSPs, with Margo MacDonald, an independent, re-elected on the Lothians list.
Mr Salmond was cheered by a triumphant crowd at the Hub in Edinburgh when he made his victory speech.
But he was deliberately conciliatory, aware he needs to find ways of reaching agreement with the Liberal Democrats if he is to fulfil his dream of a credible and trusted SNP-led administration. "My approach to that will be one of goodwill. I think there is a progressive coalition available which wants to take Scotland forward," he said.
Mr Salmond promised to introduce a new style of government to Scotland. "It's a difference of attitude and style, a difference of not how we approach the people who agree with us, but the people who remain to be convinced," he said.
"I don't quite know how we are going to configure that coalition of the progressive forces, but we will go forward with an attitude which will look for the goodwill which I know is there."
The Liberal Democrat MSPs will meet today to discuss their approach to coalition negotiations but, with the party slipping from 17 seats to 16, Nicol Stephen, their leader, is not in as strong a position as he would have hoped.
Last night, the Liberal Democrats insisted they had not yet been in contact with the SNP following the election results.
A spokesman said: "There have been and there will be no discussions tonight. The parliamentary party (the 16 MSPs just elected) will meet tomorrow to discuss the situation."
Mr Salmond is expected to meet his new MSPs over the weekend and both party leaders will then try to find a way round the impasse over the SNP's plan for a referendum on independence which has appeared to be an insurmountable problem up until now.
Jack McConnell retreated last night with his family and close advisers to plan his future.
Many Labour Party figures expect him to stand down as leader of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, triggering a leadership battle.
Mr McConnell conceded defeat to the Nationalists but warned Mr Salmond he did not have a majority in favour of independence.
He said: "While I recognise that the SNP are the largest party by the narrowest of margins, Alex Salmond must himself recognise that he does not have a majority in the Scottish Parliament or anywhere near a majority of the vote.
"There is no moral authority to pursue separation, and moral authority in the parliament will only come through different parties working together in the majority. Any attempt to suggest otherwise is, at this stage, highly premature."
Mr McConnell refused to make any statements about his future, preferring to weigh up the options before making his position clear.
"I have not spent the last five and a half years of my life as First Minister, building up Scotland and improving this country, to make a snap decision this weekend about the future of our country, a decision that could affect every family across Scotland," Mr McConnell said.
The defeat for Labour will cause major ructions throughout the party, and not just in Scotland. It has been 50 years since Labour lost an election north of the Border and the repercussions will be long and severe, with a detailed policy and strategy review expected.
The election proved to be a classic two-horse race, with the jarring battle between Labour and the SNP squeezing all the other parties, particularly the smaller ones.
The Conservatives won 17 seats, a reduction of one from the 2003 result, but ended up in third place, just ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
An invigorated Annabel Goldie, the leader of the Scottish Tories, said she had no intention of standing down and would continue at the head of her party for as long as possible.
Only three MSPs were elected from outwith the four main parties. Two Greens were returned - Robin Harper in Edinburgh and Patrick Harvie in Glasgow - along with the independent Ms MacDonald.
The Scottish Socialist Party was wiped out after eight years in parliament and the Solidarity leader, Tommy Sheridan, lost his seat after being in Holyrood for the same period.
Mr Sheridan suggested that the severe problems over the 100,000 invalid ballot papers across the country had denied him a place in the parliament. However, the socialist firebrand said he was not contemplating a legal challenge.
As the inquest started into the fiasco, it emerged that thousands of voters had misunderstood the ballot papers and filled them in the wrong way.
This was the first time that voters had been presented with three different electoral systems on two different ballot papers and many failed to cope with the instructions.
There were also problems with the electronic counting machines that were being used for the first time.
Some of the results were very close, with the number of invalid ballot papers larger than the victory margin in a sixth of seats.
In Cunninghame North, for instance, the SNP's Kenneth Gibson beat the Labour candidate Allan Wilson by only 48 votes, and there were just under 1,100 spoilt papers.
A furious Mr Salmond said the first thing he would do if he became First Minister would be to commission a full, independent, judicial inquiry into the problems to make sure they never happened again.
Meanwhile, Labour insiders may be keeping quiet in public, but they are privately already thinking about how they will deal with an SNP-led Executive.
Continuing a campaign attack on Mr Salmond as someone who will foment tension with Westminster, Labour last night seized on the SNP leader's pledge to hold a separate review of the number of spoilt ballots.
Douglas Alexander, Labour's Scottish Secretary, has announced the Electoral Commission will review the situation, and yesterday rejected Mr Salmond's call for another investigation, this time led by a judge, as "not necessary". One senior Labour figure said: "This is the first clash with Westminster, the first fight he's picking - it's totally unnecessary, and proves what we said about him."
The shape of Scotland's town halls also changed dramatically over the course of the election.
Labour lost what was left of its grip on Scotland's councils and now controls only two of the country's 32 local authorities.
Turnout was estimated to be around 52 per cent for the Holyrood poll - an improvement on the 49 per cent in 2003, but not nearly as big as electoral experts had hoped, with such a high-profile election.
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