Momentum builds for SNP as poll puts party 5% up on Labour
Key quote "Labour's policy of sending up the heavies from London has not only undermined Jack McConnell, but it has shown them to be as worried and concerned about his ability to lead as he is himself." - Alex Salmond
Story in full ALEX Salmond is on course to become First Minister next May, according to a new opinion poll today for The Scotsman.
The ICM survey shows that the SNP is continuing to take voters from Labour and could emerge as the biggest party at Holyrood next year.
The nationalists have managed to overtake Labour in both the constituency and regional list votes for the Holyrood election, improving on the already strong position the party registered in last month's Scotsman ICM poll.
If the results were carried through to next May, Mr Salmond would be able to form an SNP-Liberal Democrat administration at Holyrood without needing any help from the Greens.
And with Labour and the Liberal Democrats failing to get enough seats between them to form a third Lab-Lib Dem government, Mr Salmond would be the favourite to become First Minister.
The poll gives the SNP 34 per cent of the vote in the first, constituency ballot - up from 32 per cent last month and five points ahead of Labour on 29 per cent: they are down from 30 per cent last month.
In the second, regional list vote, the SNP and Labour were tied on 28 per cent last month, but this has been transformed into a five-point SNP lead, with the nationalists up three to 31 per cent, and Labour down two to 26 per cent.
The Liberal Democrats are also making progress according to the poll, gaining two points on each vote, with 17 per cent of the constituency vote and 19 per cent of the list vote.
The news is not so good for the Conservatives, however, as the Tories slip one point to 13 per cent on the constituency vote and are down two to 12 per cent on the list vote.
Translated into seats, the poll would give the SNP 43 MSPs, up 16, making it the largest party at Holyrood and giving Mr Salmond the election victory he craves.
Labour would have 38 seats, down 12, the Liberal Democrats would have 25, up eight. The Conservatives would have 14, down four, with the Greens on five, down two, and the others on four, down six.
Mr Salmond has always insisted his party could emerge victorious from next year's elections, a possibility treated with scepticism by most commentators. But today's poll suggests, if current trends continue, that the SNP could take enough seats from Labour to win the election.
The Liberal Democrats have a policy of talking to the biggest party first and, with potentially enough seats between them to form an administration, Scotland's first SNP-Lib Dem coalition seems a realistic possibility.
Mr Salmond said: "The poll indicates the steady progress made by the SNP as we move past the Labour Party in Scotland.
"Labour's policy of sending up the heavies from London has not only undermined Jack McConnell, but it has shown them to be as worried and concerned about his ability to lead as he is himself."
The poll represents a hammer blow to Mr McConnell's hopes of remaining First Minister. Although it was conducted during the latter half of last week (22 and 23 November), before the publicity over the Scottish Labour conference had a chance to filter through to the voting public, it shows Labour has not managed to eat into the SNP vote at all over the past month.
Mr McConnell will be hoping Labour's decision to concentrate vociferously on the perils of independence last week - a move led by the Prime Minister - will start to reverse the nationalist tide, but there is no indication as yet that Labour's assault on independence has any effect.
Duncan McNeil, chairman of the Labour group in the Scottish Parliament, said: "The most consistent thing about polls at the moment is their inconsistency and, as our successful conference in Oban has shown, as soon as the SNP's policies are put under scrutiny they start to crumble."
Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat' leader, said: "This is yet another poll that shows the Liberal Democrat vote rising. Following our sensational victory in the Dunfermline by-election, it is clear that Liberal Democrats are the only party with growing momentum across Scotland, among young people in particular."
The poll suggests the Conservatives will lose four seats, but a party spokesman said: "We know from speaking to people on the doorsteps the length and breadth of Scotland that more and more are looking to us to provide a fresh agenda that can at last deliver on devolution."
The one possible outcome that could involve the Tories would be if they, Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed a unionist pact to keep out the SNP. The Tories could agree to sustain a minority Lab-Lib Dem government but without joining a formal coalition.
The poll gives the SSP 3 per cent and 4 per cent on the two ballots - down only one point on the constituency vote - while Solidarity, Tommy Sheridan's new party, has dropped off the scale completely, registering so few supporters it has not achieved even 1 per cent in either vote. This suggests the SSP may return one or two MSPs, if it can concentrate its vote in specific areas, but that Solidarity will get nowhere near Holyrood next May.
Cross-border support for independence
LABOUR suffered another blow yesterday with a poll showing majorities in both Scotland and England for independence.
An ICM poll for the Sunday Telegraph found support for Scottish independence at 52 per cent among Scots and 59 per cent south of the Border.
It also found that 68 per cent of English people wanted their own parliament, an idea supported by 58 per cent of Scots. A move to complete English independence was backed by 48 per cent of voters in England and 45 per cent in Scotland.
The findings for Scotland are very similar to a poll by The Scotsman last month which found 51 per cent in favour of independence north of the Border, but this is the first time there has been such strong backing for a break-up of the United Kingdom.
The poll will make grim reading for Labour, with party leaders, including Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and Douglas Alexander, the Scottish Secretary, all having used the party's conference in Oban to mount a vociferous assault on the SNP.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, yesterday backed the Union between England, Scotland and Wales, and dismissed the notion of a new English parliament.
Small swings that could cost Labour the seats of power
LABOUR does, it seems, face a very real danger of losing next year's Scottish election.
While several polls in recent weeks, including our own last month, have suggested the SNP might be narrowly ahead of Labour in votes, this is the first public poll to put the SNP sufficiently far ahead to suggest it could also come first in terms of seats.
Until now only a private poll commissioned by the SNP itself has put the nationalists ahead in the battle for seats.
Indeed so perilous is Labour's position that two Labour cabinet ministers could now find themselves ejected from Holyrood. If the swing to the nationalists indicated by this poll were replicated in East Kilbride, Andy Kerr, who has battled with sorting out Scotland's health service, would lose his seat.
Equally vulnerable in Paisley South is Hugh Henry, appointed only last week as education minister. At the same time, ironically, Labour could lose enough constituency seats in Edinburgh to enable Lord Foulkes, who is top of Labour's regional list in the Lothians, to start a second political career at Holyrood.
The changes in party fortunes since our poll last month are not large. The nationalists are up by just two or three points, Labour down by only one or two. It is a difference sufficiently small to have occurred by chance.
Nevertheless, our results show how, in a tight race, just a small slippage in Labour support to the nationalists' advantage could have devastating consequences for Jack McConnell's ambition to secure a full third term.
On our projection, Labour would have too few seats to be able to form a third majority coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Labour's tally of 38 seats together with the Liberal Democrats' 25 would be two seats short of the 65 seats needed for an overall majority. Any Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition would have to rely on the support of five Green MSPs or, less likely, to be voted back in by the Conservatives.
In contrast, Alex Salmond would be home and dry - so long as he could win the support of the Liberal Democrats.
But it is not just Mr Salmond who has good reason to be cheered by this poll. So also does Nicol Stephen, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader.
His party is up by two points since last month, and, on the vital list vote, is now as much as seven points up on its support in 2003.
The Liberal Democrats' apparent progress is perhaps a reminder to Labour that even if it persuades some voters that backing the SNP is a risky way of expressing their dissatisfaction with Tony Blair or Jack McConnell, those voters might simply instead switch to the Liberal Democrats as an alternative way to protest.
In any event, on these figures the Liberal Democrats seem set to claim another seat at the cabinet table whether they end up doing a deal with Labour or the SNP.
• John Curtice is professor of politics at Strathclyde University
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