FROM now until elections to a Scottish Parliament in May of next year, the performance of the political parties in Scotland will come under the microscope as never before. From now on, the usual System Three monthly poll for The Herald on voting intentions at a General Election will be supplemented by additional figures on voting intentions for a Scottish Parliament.

Today's figures give food for thought to all the parties who will contest those elections. Labour's continued strength in the General Election voting intentions is underlined by yet result above that it achieved in last May. However, when voters are asked about their intentions for a Scottish Parliament, the SNP close the gap.

So how are we to interpret the differences in voting intentions and what are their implications for the political parties and for the make-up of a Scottish Parliament?

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First, the make-up of a Scottish Parliament can be viewed in a number of ways. If we assume that voters cast both their constituency vote and party list vote for the same party then on the basis of the voting intentions to a Scottish Parliament, Labour could expect to achieve a small overall majority of seven.

Labour would have 68 seats, the SNP would be the official opposition in Scotland with 36 seats, with the Liberal Democrats on 17 seats and the Conservatives on eight.

There are a number of factors which work against the SNP here. The number of seats contested under first past the post is 73. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the SNP would win around 30 out of the 576 Additional Members, Labour's continued strength in the constituencies means that the SNP are unlikely to make significant inroads, without a Conservative revival.

What is striking in the poll results produced by System Three is how much Scottish politics is dominated by Labour and the SNP. This further cements the idea that, at least in the short term, there is no waning in support for the Nationalists as a result of the setting up of a Scottish Parliament. If anything, the ''devolution is a slippery slope to Independence'' argument is gaining some modest momentum.

The failure of the Conservatives in the wake of last year's election defeat is also sharply underlined by these latest figures. In fact, rather than increasing their vote share in the question on Scottish Parliament voting intentions, the Tories actually slide from 11% to 9%. This is extremely worrying for the Conservatives. It is directly a product of continued low profile in Scotland, but it may also show a more damaging trend - that the Tories have failed to show the will to reinvent themselves in a Scottish mould.

The poorly received performance of the Tory national leadership, coupled to only a small move forward in internal reform in Scotland means that the Conservatives cannot rely on a Scottish Parliament to achieve a recovery. I still argue it is their best bet.

There is deep irony in the Conservatives' position at present. Their failure is actually a hindrance to SNP success. While the Tories languish around 10% in the Scottish polls it means that both Labour and the Liberal Democrats can rely on continued success in places like Stirling, Eastwood, Ayr, Edinburgh West and Edinburgh Pentlands. As a result, it does not alter significantly the balance of power if the SNP were able to pick off a few of Labour's central belt strongholds. As a result, the Tories' failure to defend the Union may end up being the saviour of it.

Yet again, the heat is on in Scottish politics. Nothing can be taken for granted in the run up to a Scottish Parliament. In addition, the Scottish electorate's voters will not be easily predicted. Scots voters have shown a great deal of sophistication in recent elections. With a new type of electoral system the likelihood is that voters will even more ''use'' their vote in different ways and in different areas. The final analysis will only come with the crucial first elections next May.

*Malcolm Dickson is Lecturer in Politics at Strathclyde University.