There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip, Donald

No less than one in four Scots are still undecided. Labour's lead could yet go into reverse
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The Independent Culture
LABOUR ENTERS the election campaign for Scotland's first parliament for 300 years in confident mood. After months of being even with the SNP in the polls, it has gradually opened up a clear lead over Alex Salmond's nationalist band. Labour believes the SNP has taken vote-losing stances on both tax and Kosovo. Yet exactly what will happen after polling day on 6 May is still far from clear.

Thanks to the new proportional representation system being used to elect the new parliament, Scots will have not one but two votes on 6 May. One vote will be for a local MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) to be elected under the traditional first-past-the-post system. The other will be for a regional party list, on which basis extra seats will be doled out to make the overall result more proportional.

Three polls published in the last week have all shown clear Labour leads in both contests. In the constituency battle Labour's lead is between 11 and 14 points. The regional party list vote is closer but with leads of between four and 12 points, again there seems to be little for Labour to worry about.

However while such leads might produce a landslide under the old electoral system, they are far from sufficient to give Labour an overall majority under PR. For that it will need close to 50 per cent on the regional party list vote - but no poll is giving it more than 43 per cent.

In short, the election on 6 May still appears headed for the outcome that has long appeared most likely - a hung parliament in which Labour is the largest party.

On the basis of the most recent polls Labour could expect to win around 60 of the 129 seats in the new parliament, five short of what would be needed for an overall majority. The Nationalists would be left clearly trailing with just 40 seats.

Yet the outcome should not be taken for granted. For there is still a substantial mood of uncertainty among the Scottish electorate. No less than one in four Scots have still to make up their minds how to vote; a figure on the rise. Labour's lead could yet go into reverse.

Labour strategists believe that the SNP's decision to use the tax- varying powers of the new parliament to reverse Gordon Brown's income tax cut, together with Alex Salmond's opposition to the Nato action in Yugoslavia, will play into their hands.

Yet on both subjects the public is more equivocal than Labour might hope. Two polls in the last week have found a clear majority of Scots saying they are in favour of the SNP's position on tax, while another found that less than half believe that the Nato bombing campaign will help the people of Kosovo. Indeed, the only poll so far to have been taken since Alex Salmond attacked the Nato campaign as "unpardonable folly" found SNP support up two points. But there are doubts.

Take tax, for example. While the SNP was quick to announce after the Budget that it would use the tax-varying powers of the parliament, it has been very slow to spell out how it will use the money raised. Only this week will we be told. Labour has been able to keep the SNP on the defensive on tax, and avoided having to defend itself on spending. There are clear signs that some of Labour's attacks, such as the alleged impact of the SNP's policy on pensioners, have scored points.

Thanks to the new electoral system this election is meant to inaugurate the revival of the Conservative Party in Scotland. But standing at between 10 per cent and 13 per cent in the polls, the party is currently in even more dire straits than in 1997 when it won 17 per cent of the Scottish vote. It could be left with little more than a dozen MSPs. With none of its big hitters deigning to stand for the new parliament, the party is struggling to avoid looking an irrelevance.

The prospects are hardly brighter for the other also-rans of Scottish politics, the Liberal Democrats. Most recent polls have put the party below the 13 per cent it scored in 1997. The new electoral system may mean that a Lib Dem vote is no longer a wasted vote, at least on the party list ballot, but that message has yet to have much impact.

But the biggest problem facing Jim Wallace, the Liberal Democrats' Scottish leader, is how to maximise his party's chances of seeing power or, at any rate, influence. A hung parliament will not in itself guarantee the Liberal Democrats a key role.

Their potential bargaining power has been eroded by two, for them, disturbing developments.

The first is the decline in the Nationalists' position. On policies the Lib Dems and the SNP have been moving closer together. The Lib Dems are inclined to agree with the SNP that the parliament should use its tax-varying powers. Meanwhile Alex Salmond has sent out smoke signals suggesting his party would not necessarily insist on holding a referendum on independence. But all of this will be irrelevant if, as currently seems likely, the two parties' combined strength is far from a majority.

Thus, instead of being "king-maker" between the SNP and Labour, Jim Wallace's only real choice seems to be between a deal with Labour or no-one.

The Lib Dems' second problem comes from the Conservatives' changing mood.

Last month the party's Scottish leader, David McLetchie, dramatically announced that his party might help keep a Labour administration in office in order to ensure that Nationalists did not get a foothold on power. The Conservatives will not join Labour in an anti-Nationalist coalition, but they might be prepared to give them the support Labour needs from the backbenches.

And if the latest polls are right, then Labour might well have sufficient strength to elect the current Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, First Minister against both SNP and Liberal Democrat opposition, just so long as the Conservatives abstain. Once so elected, sustaining a minority administration in office is likely to be easier in the new parliament than it is at Westminster, as government defeats on individual measures are not automatically issues of confidence.

Donald Dewar may still be the clear favourite to become Scotland's first First Minister, but his pathway to power could yet provide a few nasty surprises.

John Curtice is Deputy Director of the ESRC Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends. Their analysis of the Scottish and Welsh Referendums, `Scotland and Wales: Nations Again', is published by the University of Wales Press.