Salmond rises in Scottish poll as opponents flounder

After four years in power, the SNP looksset to make gains

Ballater was up uncommonly early on Friday morning. Six days before the most important election in the life of the modern Scottish Parliament – and in one of its more pivotal seats – final preparations for an event long awaited in the tiny Aberdeenshire village began shortly before dawn.

Posters were pinned up; decorations hung and the public gathered. But they had nothing to do with the election campaign that was taking place. Ballater, at the gateway to the Queen's Balmoral estate, was celebrating the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, with scant thought for the coronation of politicians in Edinburgh. "No one is talking about the election," explained Carolyn Long, as she worked out the best place to watch the event with her children. "Not just today, but for at least a week. It doesn't seem so important at the moment."

It is a common refrain, notably among party activists attempting to interest voters. Yet, in Ballater, it appears that they have not tried too hard. In the shops, in the tourist information centre and the houses around the main shopping street, many of the 1,500 residents report that they have seen no one canvassing since the campaign began almost a month ago. Behind the counter of AB Yule newsagents, Terry complained: "We saw a few of them last time, but this time around no one at all has come."

The absence of politicians should not be seen as a sign that Ballater does not care about the government of Scotland. Local shopkeepers look forward to the resumption of the campaign once the bunting has been cleared away. Ballater's businesses have been waging a public campaign against the First Minister, Alex Salmond, over a revaluation exercise that has left some of them facing a threefold increase in their business rates. They did manage to get party representatives to their village hall earlier this year, but the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), whose seat is in the same county, refuses to meet them.

"His executive is behind something that could rip the heart out of the village but he won't listen to our arguments," said Bryn Wayte, chairman of Ballater Business Association (BBA) and owner of Deeside Books. "He could easily meet us on his way back from Edinburgh, but he is dodging us."

On the wall behind Mr Wayte is a homemade poster that is turning up in more shops in Ballater: a photocopied cover of a biography of Mr Salmond (Against All Odds) under the simple instruction "If you see this man in Ballater, please inform the owner of this shop immediately".

He is unlikely to turn up any time soon, not before polling day anyway. On Friday, in fact, he was out of the country altogether, representing Scotland at a certain wedding in London. He was able to leave the SNP campaign in the hands of his minions, safe in the knowledge that, in a few short weeks of campaigning, the party had recovered from a 15 per cent poll deficit to lead Labour by 10 points. A nationwide revaluation and the impotent wrath of a collection of shopkeepers in a corner of the Cairngorms have failed to dent the campaign. A poll of polls last week suggested that a politician who only months ago looked in terminal decline could now take seats from all his major rivals and end up with 60 MSPs – 13 more than his party won four years ago.

The explanation for the turnaround is largely Mr Salmond himself. The leader is a charismatic politician whose personal appeal often obscures reservations about SNP policies – particularly independence from the UK. "Alex is popular because of who he is, and that amounts to a huge personal vote," a senior party official said yesterday. "People like the image of a clever Scottish leader who will stand up for the country against the English and not embarrass the nation. None of our opponents can match that."

The point was underlined by a recent poll suggesting more than half of the electorate believed Mr Salmond would make the best First Minister; Labour's Iain Gray, a far less commanding figure, polled 27 per cent.

Yet the First Minister's talents do not tell the full story; his campaign has been ably assisted by his most ferocious rivals. Last weekend, less than a fortnight before polling day, party managers effectively ripped up their plan of campaign and started again. Labour insisted that the late change of direction had long been factored into their planning, but an Easter Monday relaunch, after a series of high-profile gaffes and an accompanying plunge in poll ratings, suggested nothing but panic at the highest levels.

The Labour campaign began with Mr Gray hiding from cuts protesters in a sandwich shop in Glasgow and descended into farce last week as, even as the party boasted that Mr Salmond had hidden from their leader, they found themselves in an Asda store in Ardrossan at the same time. But the problem with Mr Gray's campaign is not planning, but strategy

John McTernan, a former Tony Blair aide and veteran of past Holyrood campaigns, said Labour should take an aggressive, even "nasty" stance against the SNP – particularly over a local income tax policy he claimed could cost every Scot 5p in the pound. He said: "There has not been sufficient concentration on simply attacking the SNP, who are the main electoral enemy in this campaign."

The irony is that Labour had proved itself capable of playing the man rather than the ball; the problem was that it had consistently played the wrong man. The original target of the Labour campaign was David Cameron. But the Tories remain largely irrelevant at Holyrood. Labour's greatest opportunity for electoral gain is to be found among Liberal Democrat voters. "The big story is more than eight out of 10 voters are refusing to vote for the coalition parties," Mr McTernan said. "There's a lot of people who are looking for an anti-coalition home. Is that going to be Labour or the SNP?"

While Labour has effectively been fighting a dry run of the next general election campaign, Mr Salmond has been concentrating on Scottish issues. The SNP is now confident not only of gaining seats, but of holding those like Almond Valley, the most marginal constituency in the country, where the majority is four votes. A promised series of high-profile Labour visitors should at least highlight questions over the First Minister's judgement, and perhaps eat away at his lead.

It is not clear that even the Labour leadership is entirely on board. Ed Miliband did at least tackle the SNP by claiming that victory would spell disaster for the Union, during one of the first heavy-hitter interventions last week. But he also told his audience in Edinburgh: "The question is do we send a message at these elections across the United Kingdom that we don't like the direction of the Westminster government."

It is in their opposition to this view that Mr Salmond and the Ballater traders might see eye to eye. "Politicians should be talking about things like the business rates," said Mr Wayte, "because these are the things that interest people in this country."

Unless Labour begins to treat the Scottish elections like "an enormous by-election" and not a nationwide poll, Mr Salmond will still be the man having to deflect the wrath of the BBA on Friday morning.

Race for Holyrood: How the rival party leaders shape up

Alex Salmond, 56, SNP

Looked vulnerable amid questions over his performance as First Minister – and revelations that he had gone to court to keep secret the financial implications of SNP plans to introduce a local income tax. Yet his campaign has picked up, helped by rivals' failure to lay a glove on him, and is now expected to increase the number of SNP MSPs. His first challenge would be whether to continue governing as a minority administration or with another party, and when to hold the long-promised independence referendum.

Iain Gray, 53, Labour

Insists "I am a serious man for serious times" when criticised over his "uninspiring" leadership, but suffers when voters are faced with the choice between him and Salmond. Labour's 15-point poll lead has long gone, amid disasters such as Gray's flight from protesters at Glasgow Central station. Has proven an assiduous opponent in the parliamentary chamber, so the decision to target the First Minister may work, but is unlikely to regain Labour's lead. Win or lose, there seems little appetite for a leadership challenge.

Annabel Goldie, 61, Conservative

Given the hardest task of the campaign, reviving the fortunes of a party that remains toxic in most of Scotland, and flat-lining at around 12 per cent in the polls. But "Battling Bella" has emerged with credit, loyally trumpeting Conservative obsessions such as the Big Society with gusto, while projecting an endearing personality. Not expected to do more than keep the Tory ship afloat until a younger leader emerges, but her energetic, common-sense approach is proving surprisingly popular until then.

Tavish Scott, 44, Liberal Democrat

Fearing carrying the can for the unpopularity of the coalition government, Scott has attempted to distance his party from the coalition – while claiming Nick Clegg has saved Scotland from the "worst excesses of Thatcherism". He also refuses to rule out a coalition with Labour at Holyrood, regardless of what his colleagues in London think. Ultimately, the arithmetic might sideline him – latest polls warn the Lib Dem tally could be only half the 16 seats taken in 2007 – and that would raise questions about his future.

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