Voting for a New Britain:SNP poll defeat in Govan may spell doom for Salmond hopes Salmond

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The Independent Online
IF THE Scottish National Party does not win Govan on 6 May, the game will be up for Alex Salmond. A politician's Verdun, this archetypal patch of inner-city Glasgow has become a symbol of whether the SNP can defeat Labour in its urban strongholds.

The Govan parliamentary constituency has fallen twice to the nationalists in by-elections only to be retaken by Labour. Margo MacDonald, the "blonde bombshell", caused the upset in 1973, and 15 years later the fiery orator Jim Sillars, now Ms MacDonald's husband, repeated the trick.

To the outside world, Govan was shipbuilding. But last week came a reminder that thisimage is slipping into history when the Norwegian firm Kvaerner announced it was pulling out of its Govan yard, threatening the end of merchant shipbuilding on the Upper Clyde.

But away from the riverside wastelands the constituency is much more diverse, with light industry, cheap shops, a bustling Asian community in the sandstone tenements of Pollokshields, and some of the grandest villas of Glasgow set in Maxwell Park.

Mohammed Sarwar, Govan's Labour MP, lives in this leafy corner of affluence, nursing a recent past that is a key factor in the elections to the new Parliament. His election as Britain's first Muslim MP in May 1997 followed a selection battle bitter even for a constituency Labour party renowned for internecine warfare. Labour's majority was slashed to less than 3,000 votes by Nicola Sturgeon, 28, a close Salmond ally who is fighting the seat for Holyrood.

Within a fortnight of victory, Mr Sarwar became embroiled in accusations of bribery and electoral corruption. He was acquitted last month after a nine-week trial at the High Court in Edinburgh, but morale in the constituency remains low.

Factionalism resurfaced in the selection of Gordon Jackson, a well-known Scottish QC and friend of Mr Sarwar, to fight the seat for the Scottish Parliament. "There's practically nothing happening on the ground and even some party members are saying they won't vote Labour," said one Govan Labourite.

With the shipyard crisis and the Sarwar legacy, Ms Sturgeon ought to have Govan on a plate. The sharp-tongued solicitor is still favourite but, as the SNP's national bandwagon has stalled, doubts have crept in.

Ms Sturgeon says it is an exaggeration to claim it would be a disaster if the SNP did not take the seat. "We are very hopeful of winning and will be very disappointed if we don't," she said. "I am quite confident the SNP will do better right across Glasgow and the west of Scotland." But disaster it would be. Apart from the complicated four-way marginal of Inverness East, Govan is the SNP's best chance of taking a constituency it does not already hold at Westminster. A swing of only 4.5 per cent is needed.

Other parties will not get much of a look in, though they do reflect the changing nature of the Govan constituency. Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, for the Tories, is another 28-year-old solicitor, while Mohammed Aslam, for the Liberal Democrats, 54, is a lawyer turned mortgage consultant. Old left Govan has echoes in Charlie McCarthy, for the Scottish Socialists, and John Foster, the only Communist standing for the Parliament.