SNP lures fed-up Labour voters

The Scottish National party's insurgent campaign is embodied by one man – Alex Salmond, the Nationalists' combative and sharp-tongued leader.

Mr Salmond has regularly topped polls asking voters to name the strongest prospective first minister. He is ahead of Jack McConnell, the Labour incumbent, and streets ahead of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative leaders at Holyrood.

The Nationalists have sought to exploit Mr Salmond's standing by the wheeze of running all their regional list candidates – elected through a proportional representation system – under the banner “Alex Salmond for First Minister”, rather than the SNP.

Mr Salmond has made an effort to soften his acerbic image, which pollsters say has deterred women voters. He lost weight for the campaign, has been wearing well-cut suits and has exuded relaxed confidence during media interviews.

A professional and presidential-style campaign has been aided by generous donations from business donors, such as Brian Souter of the Stagecoach transport group and Sir Tom Farmer, founder of Kwik-Fit.

However, Mr Salmond's tactical master-stroke has been to succeed in “parking” the independence issue by promising to hold a referendum only within the next term of the parliament – probably in 2010. This has allowed him to position the SNP as the natural home for Labour voters disgruntled with Tony Blair and Iraq, when most polls suggest support for outright independence in Scotland remains below the 30 per cent level.

Mr Blair and Gordon Brown have repeatedly warned Scots about the dire economic implications of separation. But Mr Salmond has countered that he would demonstrate the SNP's fitness to govern before seeking fresh powers.

The SNP's plans to finance council spending through a local income tax of 3p in the pound also came under sustained fire from Labour. The Institute of Fiscal Studies pointed out that the proposal would raise only £1.25bn a year, compared with current council tax revenue of £2.13bn – an amount that would require a local income tax of 5p in the pound.

It may be several days before the SNP knows whether it can join a governing coalition. But even if the ultimate prize eludes the party, it has already won the campaign – at least according to a YouGov poll that found 33 per cent believed the SNP had run the most impressive race, against 11 per cent for Labour, 8 per cent for the Lib Dems and 7 per cent for the Conservatives.

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