Vital gains forecast for SNP in swing from Labour

Key quote "The result of this poll further confirms the fact that Labour is floundering in Scotland while the momentum is now clearly with the SNP." - Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's Holyrood leader

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ALEX Salmond received a massive pre-election boost today with a new opinion poll showing a clear majority of Scots favour independence, and illustrating a significant swing from Labour to the SNP.

The Scotsman ICM poll found 51 per cent now favoured full independence with only 39 per cent against - the biggest level of support for separatism for eight years.

The poll also forecasts major gains for the SNP at next year's Holyrood elections with the party on course to win enough seats to form Britain's first nationalist-led government.

But it predicts that, despite a dramatic fall in the Labour vote, the SNP will not emerge as Scotland's largest party and will need the co-operation of both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to form a 'rainbow alliance' in the Scottish Executive.

The ICM poll - the first in a series of monthly polls commissioned by The Scotsman in the run-up to next year's crucial Holyrood elections - shows that the SNP has kept up the momentum it generated during the summer.

The results suggest a swing of between 7 and 8 per cent to the Nationalists and a drop of between 1 per cent and 5 per cent in Labour support.

According to the poll, the SNP would win more votes than Labour on the first, constituency, vote - 32 per cent to 30 per cent - and the two parties would be tied on 28 per cent for the second, list, vote.

This would give the SNP 37 seats, up ten from 2003, and Labour 41, down nine from 2003.

With only four seats between the two main parties, the future of the Scottish Executive would rest with the Liberal Democrats who are on course to get 25 seats, up eight from 2003.

Such a result would put the Liberal Democrats in an immensely strong bargaining position. They would be able to demand three or four senior Cabinet positions as well as the implementation of major chunks of Lib Dem policy - whoever they went into coalition with.

The Liberal Democrats would be able to choose to go into coalition again with Labour, the two parties could combine to form an Executive with a majority of three.

Or the Liberal Democrats could decide that Labour was now so tarnished, as a result of its losses at the polls, to go into coalition with the SNP. However, the two parties would be three seats short of an overall majority and they would need to secure the official support of the Greens to form a government.

Such a scenario would give power to the Greens who would be able to demand at least one major policy commitment from the coalition, possibly a raft of new Green taxes or a major change in direction for transport policy.

The two parties who will be most disappointed with the poll are the Conservatives and the Scottish Socialists.

The poll confirms reports from the Tories' own internal research which suggests that the party is making no progress at all in Scotland, despite the galvanising effect that David Cameron is having on the Tory vote south of the border.

Today's poll indicates that the Tories will lose one seat, down from 18 to 17, and will lose votes, down 2 per cent on the constituencies and down 1 per cent on the regional lists.

The troubles which have torn the SSP apart have also harmed its chances with the party down to just 4 per cent on both votes, a level of popular support which is likely to wipe out most of the gains the party made in 2003.

Tommy Sheridan's new party, Solidarity, has done enough to register just 1 per cent of the vote, not nearly enough to guarantee the party a seat next May but that position may well change over the next few months.

But it is the level of support for independence which will give Mr Salmond, the SNP leader, most encouragement and concern Labour leaders at the same time.

ICM has been polling on this question since 1998 and this is the first time since then support for independence has topped 50 per cent. Indeed, this is the first time for six years that ICM has recorded a margin of any sort in favour of independence.

Both Mr Salmond and Jack McConnell appear determined to make independence a key theme in the run-up to next May's election but, according to this poll, that tactic does appear to be favouring Mr Salmond.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's Holyrood leader, said: "The result of this poll further confirms the fact that Labour is floundering in Scotland while the momentum is now clearly with the SNP.

"In addition, this poll shows that Labour's tired scaremongering tactics are simply not working in the face of the SNP's positive case for independence."

But Duncan McNeil, chair of the Labour group of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, insisted that SNP support would decline when the voters realised the choice facing them next May.

He said: "The choice voters will face is between investment in schools and the NHS with Labour, or separation and isolation with the nationalists. It is difficult to see how levels of support for the SNP can remain at this level."

Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, said: "This is very good news for the Liberal Democrats. Following our spectacular victory in Dunfermline, it is clear that we are the only party with momentum in Scotland.

"Support for the Liberal Democrats is growing, not least in new parts of Scotland and especially among the young."

Annabel Goldie, the Scottish Conservative leader, claimed that her party would still do well, despite the poll's findings.

She said: "We know that in May, more Scottish Conservative councillors and MSPs will be elected. Holyrood will remain as a parliament of minority parties but our stronger voice will allow more Conservative values and policies to influence how the country is governed."

And she added: "More Scottish Conservative MSPs means a better parliament."

Mark Ruskell, the election campaign director for the Greens, said: "Far from losing seats, this poll, which doubles our vote compared to a similar poll at the same stage before the 2003 election, tells us that we are gaining ground and we fully expect to increase our MSPs."

The detailed findings will also prove to be fascinating reading for party managers.

They show big support for independence among the young and the working class and scepticism about independence among middle class voters and pensioners.

However, the poll also found that only 46 per cent of those asked were certain to vote - a figure which suggests that apathy will play an important part next May and the success of each party to get its own vote out will be crucial to the outcome.

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