Key quote "The election should not be about - and no-one wants it to be about - the job of Tony Blair, the mortgage of Tony Blair or the future of any individual UK politician. This election has to be about the future of Scotland." - Jack McConnell, the First Minister
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LABOUR has taken a commanding lead over the Scottish National Party in the fight to win the next Holyrood election, according to a new poll.
The survey published last night put the party eight points ahead of the Nationalists in the first vote for the Scottish parliament, with the two practically neck and neck for the second vote.
According to the TNS System Three survey, conducted last week, Labour support stands at 36 per cent in the first-past-the-post contest compared with the SNP's 28 per cent. In the second vote, for list MSPs, Labour is at 28 per cent with the SNP at 27 per cent.
The figures, which run counter to other recent polling, show that the Liberal Democrats are gaining ground but the Tories show little sign of increasing their support.
According to calculations by John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, if the poll result was replicated in May, Labour would win 49 seats, down just one, and the SNP - which lost eight seats in 2003 - would drop a further three to 24 MSPs.
However, the Liberal Democrats would be on 23, up six, the Conservative up two on 20 and the Greens on nine, an increase of two. The SSP/Solidarity would get just one seat, down five. Other parties or independent candidates would take three seats.
The Liberal Democrat advance would put them in a strong position to demand more Cabinet seats from Mr McConnell in a third Labour/Lib Dem coalition. But a result which mirrored this poll would put paid to any hopes of the SNP governing with the Lib Dems or even with the Lib Dems and Greens.
The new figures are a significant boost to Labour in Scotland, after other polls suggested the party had been suffering as a result of the continuing speculation over Tony Blair's future and the UK government's foreign policy.
Yesterday Jack McConnell, the First Minister, claimed Labour was stronger than it had ever been because of the record of the Executive in Scotland. Mr McConnell cited policies including the smoking ban, anti-social behaviour legislation and measures to tackle sectarianism as Labour achievements.
In his first on-the-record briefing since the parliament's summer recess, Mr McConnell refused to accept Labour would lose any seats. He said: "We go into these elections more confident than I have ever been in my five years as First Minister.
"I have come back from this summer fitter than I have been for four years. I believe we will have better ideas, more of them, a greater clarity of vision in our manifesto. This is the best job in Scotland and the only time this job is an unhappy one is when there are any doubts about whether we are delivering the changes people need in the things that I care about like tackling violence and Scotland's reputation abroad."
Mr McConnell said the next election would be a "battle of ideas" between devolution with Labour and a move towards independence with the SNP.
He added: "Scotland is a better place than it was when devolution came in seven years ago. I love this job, I want to hang on to it and I don't want that because of the position it gives me - I do it because of the actions I can take and there are many more left to go. My target for next year is to do better than we did in 2003."
In remarks which will be seen as distancing himself from the Prime Minister, Mr McConnell said: "The election should not be about - and no-one wants it to be about - the job of Tony Blair, the mortgage of Tony Blair or the future of any individual UK politician. This election has to be about the future of Scotland."
Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP, last night insisted the poll showed his party gaining on Labour. He said: "What all the recent polls have in common is they show the SNP with momentum and taking support from the out-of-touch Labour party."
Nats woo small firms with May pledge to slash rates
ALEX Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, yesterday promised to revive declining town centres by cutting business rates for 150,000 small firms.
In the latest announcement to woo voters before May's Scottish Parliament elections, Mr Salmond said an SNP government would abolish rates for 120,000 businesses worth 8,000 or less. A further 30,000 with a value of 15,000 or less would see rates cut up to 50 per cent.
Mr Salmond said this would reinvigorate the high street by helping small shops to stay open, and would provide more opportunities for business start-ups.
He said: "It is time to help wealth creators, so that all of Scotland can enjoy the benefits of faster economic growth, with extra money in people's pockets and more and better-paid jobs."
Mr Salmond said the scheme would cost 150 million generated from money the Executive already has and a series of economic measures rather than coming out of infrastructure funds.
Smaller businesses can benefit from rates relief, but the advantage is so small many have not signed up.
Iain McMillan, director of CBI Scotland, welcomed the promise of a more substantial rates cut, but demanded a guarantee Scotland would retain rates on the same level as England for bigger firms.
Murdo Fraser, the Conservatives' enterprise spokesman, said it was not credible to pay for the cuts from existing funds and any cuts in business rates under an SNP government would be balanced by an increase in rates under local income tax.
LOUISE GRAY SCOTTISH POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT