Salmond faces challenge as poll defeat looms

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The Independent Online
ALEX SALMOND'S decade-old leadership of the Scottish National Party was threatened yesterday as potential challengers positioned themselves on the eve of this week's party conference and a likely by-election defeat.

Mr Salmond, the longest-serving UK party leader, will face his troops at the SNP annual conference in Inverness on Friday just hours after a probable Labour victory at Hamilton South, scene of the SNP's most important by- election triumph in 1967.

The party had hoped to win votes by selecting Annabelle Ewing, daughter of Winnie Ewing, who secured that famous win over Labour.

However, it looks as though a vigorous Labour campaign will retain the seat, vacated when George Robertson, the Secretary of State for Defence, was ennobled.

Indeed, if the SNP fails to go beyond the 27 per cent vote it secured in the seat during May's Scottish Parliamentary elections, Mr Salmond faces the accusation that nationalism has now run out of steam. Two senior SNP figures yesterday laid the foundations for a possible leadership challenge. Mike Russell, SNP chief executive, said that the party's May election strategy was flawed and called for improvements to the organisation. Meanwhile Andrew Wilson, 29, the party's finance spokesman, urged the party to recognise that many Scots wanted to remain British even after independence.

Such differences may overshadow the Hamilton South campaign, where Annabelle Ewing, 39, can be seen campaigning with Winnie Ewing.

Yesterday the party unveiled the poster it hopes will create the final momentum to secure victory. "New Labour lead falls" it claims, detailing the decline in Labour's electoral lead from the Westminster 1997 majority of nearly 16,000 to just over 7,000 in last May's Scottish Parliament elections, to 1,785 in June's European elections.

Winnie Ewing expected a turn-out as low as 40 per cent, implying a Labour voter stayaway. "I believe we can win in that situation," she said.

However, Labour, well-aware of the danger posed by voter fatigue, has run a strong campaign around Bill Tynan, 59, a local trade unionist.

Douglas Alexander, an advisor to the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, is co- ordinating Labour's campaign in Hamilton. All the party's big gunshave campaigned, showing the party does not take this traditional fiefdom for granted.

Mr Alexander said: "When people tell me that 1967 is the precedent of the SNP winning again, I just tell them that England won the World Cup in 1966, but that is hardly a good guide to present form."

Most excitement is aroused among voters by Stephen Mungall of the Hamilton Accies party, seeking a ground for the homeless Hamilton Academicals Football Club.

The other candidates: Charles Ferguson (C); Marilyne MacLaren (Lib Dem); Shareen Blackall (Scottish Socialist); Monica Burns (ProLife Alliance); Tom Dewar (Socialist Labour); John Moray (Status Quo); Alistair McConarchie (UK Independence); Stephen Mungall (Hamilton Accies Home, Watson Away); James Reid (Scottish Unionist); George Stidolph (Natural Law).

The 1997 general election result: G Robertson (Lab) 21,709; I Black (SNP) 5,831; R Kilgour (C) 2,858; R Pitts (Lib Dem) 1,693.