The blood-letting might turn out to be limited but the SNP's candidate selection process for next year's Scottish Parliament elections has damaged the party. John Swinney, the leader, yesterday sought to put a brave face on the outcome of the vote to rank candidates for the regional lists. It could yet deprive him of some of his most talented MSPs next May. He maintained that the SNP had now put its internal politicking out of the way and could concentrate on winning the elections. But knives glinted behind the brave face. Margo MacDonald, a high-profile loser who dropped four places in the Lothians list, said last night that Kenny MacAskill, the shadow transport minister, had plotted against her and claimed that her enemies could move against Mr Swinney.

The SNP has not been plunged into civil war, but it is potentially in a weaker position to fight the elections than if it had adopted a fairer voting system for selecting its candidates. Its chosen model seemed to put a premium on the survival, if not of the fittest, then of those best placed to influence the branches and constituency associations that instructed delegates whom to vote for, and in what order, over the weekend. The system was open to manipulation. It certainly seems to have been manipulated, with the big branches and associations wielding their power to settle scores or put one faction ahead of another to secure a higher position on the greasy pole that is the party list. Mr Swinney said it had been a democratic process, while conceding it had created ''internal tension''.

It was certainly not anti-democratic, but it was easier to exploit because of the relatively small electorate. Mr Swinney wants to replace it with one-member-one vote, a much better system. But the damage has been caused. The party has been weakened by its apparent inability to live with Ms MacDonald, who has paid a heavy price for failing to toe the line. She is unlikely to appreciate the paradox of probably failing to win a seat (for the SNP anyway) in the new Holyrood parliament building whose construction she has persistently opposed. Irene McGugan and Fiona McLeod, shadow cabinet members, also face losing their seats. Taken with the departure of Dorothy-Grace Elder and Kay Ullrich, the gender balance among SNP MSPs is likely to be tilted firmly in favour of men, surely a regressive step for a party committed to equal opportunity. Nicola Sturgeon, the hard-working shadow health minister,

has dropped down the list in Glasgow.

Any exercise that puts Sandra White, the least prominent of the Glasgow Nationalist MSPs, above Ms Sturgeon; and Adam Ingram above Mike Russell in the South of Scotland; jeopardises the prospects of Andrew Wilson by downgrading him in Central region; and does the same to George Reid, the deputy

presiding officer, in Mid-Scotland and Fife, is bound to be criticised, and with good reason. Those at electoral risk are among the SNP's most effective and high-profile MSPs.

The SNP relies on the regional lists for all but seven of its 35 MSPs. Mr Swinney has set his party a target of winning first-past-the-post seats from Labour. The

latest NOP System Three poll for The Herald showed it could win five from Labour. But, on voting projections, the gain would be wiped out by Labour taking five list seats. The lists remain of critical importance to SNP fortunes. The party showed a strange appreciation of that fact at the weekend with its treatment of big-hitting list MSPs. It might live to regret it come election day next May.