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The real test for SNP's popularity

On the first day of the year, we have the first poll of the year and in many ways it only appears to add to the uncertainty over exactly how the SNP is performing ahead of the referendum in September.

As far as the party's performance in government is concerned, it is good news, although not as good as it was six months ago. The poll for Panelbase - which must always come with the caveat that it is commissioned by the SNP itself - shows the party on 40% for the Holyrood constituency vote and the same in the regional vote, with Labour on 32% and 31% respectively. The other two major parties are some considerable way behind.

Compared with the same poll six months ago, these results are good for the SNP but also provide some comfort for Labour, who are up two points in the constituency poll and four in the regional. There has been some concern over Labour leader Johann Lamont's ability to build recognition among voters, but this poll should reassure the party it is holding up in the face of the SNP's campaign to replace Labour as Scotland's main party of the centre left.

However, even if Labour have been making progress in recent months, it is understandable that the SNP have welcomed this new poll in such fulsome terms. To be eight points ahead of the party's nearest rival more than six years into the current term is, say the SNP, a remarkable achievement and there is some truth in this as governing parties would usually expect to see a severe dip in their fortunes in the mid-term zone.

One reason the SNP appear to have bucked the trend in this way is clear: a large number of voters are happy with the job the party is doing in Scotland. In many ways, this is not surprising as the SNP have, on the whole, proved itself to be a competent, stable and occasionally inspired party of government, although it remains arguable that many of the difficult financial decisions are being put off until after the referendum.

However, the extent of the support among voters for the SNP Government, and these latest poll results, highlight a strange conundrum for the Nationalists. As far as the devolved government of Scotland is concerned, the party has been popular from the start and continues to be so. The problem is that this popularity is not translating into support for independence.

This means the challenge now for the SNP is how to change that and win support not only for its policies in government but also the core aim of independence for Scotland. Alex Salmond argues that the competence he and his colleagues have demonstrated in government proves they can be trusted with the responsibilities of independence, but it is obvious that most voters remain to be convinced of that.

This does not mean, of course, that the SNP will never convince most voters, which highlights the continuing challenge for the pro-Union parties: complacency. The polls continue to show that the SNP are trusted and liked in government and that may yet convince some of the don't-knows to vote Yes later this year.

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Local government

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