THE Scottish Labour Party has been hit by a bombshell. It finds itself suffering in our latest System Three poll in the same way that it has been hit in the polls on a UK basis in recent weeks.

Yet, contrary to the UK picture, it shows that in any election context it is the SNP which is the prime beneficiary of Labour's difficulties, which have gone from bad to worse.

Despite the fact that the fieldwork for our poll was carried out before last week's Labour conference, the depth and speed of Labour's fall is almost unprecedented and leaves the party even less certain about its immediate future in office.

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For the SNP to have drawn level with Labour in voting intentions for Westminster is a major boost to new SNP leader John Swinney.

Only last week, Scottish Secretary John Reid dismissed the SNP's challenge in the next UK General Election. Yet the reality is that the SNP is likely to be the party that takes the most votes, and possibly seats, from Labour when the country goes to the polls.

The SNP's obvious satisfaction in drawing level with Labour in the race for Westminster must be tempered by the effects of the first-past-the-post electoral system which will still be used for the next General Election.

Despite being level on vote share in our poll, the SNP could only expect to take 12 seats in total. Labour would still have 47. For 33% of the vote, the SNP would only have 17% of the seats whereas Labour would have, for the same proportion of votes, a massive 65% of the seats.

As a consequence, the electoral system provides the SNP with virtually no hope of capturing a majority of Westminster seats.

Yet such is Labour's fall in support that the Tories would recapture Ayr and Eastwood, despite a lower vote share in our poll than it received in the 1997 General Election.

Holyrood is a different matter altogether and, if the figures for Westminster make gloomy reading for Donald Dewar, then System Three's measurement of voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament are nothing short of disastrous.

Labour's share of 28% of the vote on the first ballot and 25% on the second ballot show a collapse in support that is deeply damaging and suggests just how much the Government has lost the confidence of many voters in the wake of the fuel tax crisis.

Even at the height of the poll tax crisis in 1989 and 1990, the Conservatives did not lose support in this manner in such a short period.

All of which seems to have principally benefited the SNP. There is some comfort too for the Liberal Democrats, whose UK conference seems to have shored up its support in Scotland.

For John Swinney, the first System Three poll of his leadership shows that his party would have a commanding block of 59 seats in the Scottish Parliament, including 52 constituency members.

On the basis of the 14-point lead on first ballot voting intentions, the SNP would topple 43 Labour seats, including six out of 10 Glasgow seats and all bar one in Edinburgh. Across the Central Belt, Labour seats would fall - from Greenock and Inverclyde to Kirkcaldy.

Glasgow would be the only city in Scotland to have any Labour seats at all. All of which would leave a rump of only 11 constituencies for a beleaguered Mr Dewar.

Even at the height of the SNP's lead in the polls in the summer of 1998, Labour was still breathing down its neck. This poll shows real daylight between the two for the first time.

It is, of course, only one poll. Yet it matches the downward trend in UK support for Labour but with the SNP benefiting rather than the Tories.

It is also part of a longer downward trend for Labour over the past six months. Even polls which are cautious in their measurement of SNP support have recently indicated a clear lead for the SNP in Scottish Parliament terms.

There is no doubt that Labour will fight back, and no doubt that this poll will be dismissed by Labour supporters because its fieldwork was completed before the end of their party conference.

Nevertheless, such has been the depth of the fall in one month across every poll that something has gone badly wrong for this Government.

Such is the discontent with Labour that it is difficult to see how it can turn this fall around in the short term. Despite NOP and Mori UK surveys showing some measure of Labour recovery over the last week, it perhaps makes an election in spring or early summer less likely.

In Scotland, the next Holyrood election is still over two-and-a-half years away. That is a much more significant time gap.

If Labour wins the next General Election, there may time to put its Scottish house in order, but there is the real danger now that a Conservative win at a UK level may result in further seeping away of Labour support to the SNP in Scotland.

The fuel crisis has brought to a head simmering discontent on a wider range of issues, to the point where Tony Blair's party is now being accused of the very things which in large measure saw voters desert the Conservatives three-and-a-half years ago.

A Government which is branded as out of touch and not listening is in severe danger of losing the trust of voters which, once lost, is not easily regained. What Labour must hope is that there is time to repair the damage before the next General Election.

q Malcolm Dickson is a politics lecturer at Strathclyde University

Projected gains

Based on the poll's findings, the SNP would be projected to gain the following directly-elected seats at the Scottish Parliament:

from Labour

Western Isles; Aberdeen North; Aberdeen Central; Dundee East; Dundee West; Stirling; Ochil; Dunfermline West; Kirkcaldy; Dumbarton; Greenock & Inverclyde; Renfrewshire West; Clydebank & Milngavie; Paisley North: Paisley South; Cunninghame North; Eastwood; Glasgow Maryhill; Glasgow Baillieston; Glasgow Kelvin; Glasgow Govan; Glasgow Pollok; Glasgow Cathcart; Cumbernauld & Kilsyth; Falkirk East; Hamilton North & Belshill; Motherwell & Wishaw; East Kilbride; Kilmarnock & Loudoun; Linlithgow; Livingston; Edinburgh North & Leith; Edinburgh East & Musselburgh; Edinburgh Central; Edinburgh Pentlands; Edinburgh South; Midlothian; Cunninghame South; Ayr; Carrick; Cumnock & Doon Valley; Clydesdale; Dumfries

from the Lib Dems

Ross, Skye & Inverness West; Gordon; Argyll & Bute