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SNP rides high in poll as Labour takes a fall

LABOUR enters its conference week with a drop in the polls to its

lowest standing in Scotland for more than a year -- and with the SNP

dramatically shortening the gap, according to a System Three poll for

The Herald.

Labour are on 46%, down 11 points since its high point in July --

while the SNP has climbed eight points over the same period to reach

30%. The figures match the SNP's best rating of last year but that was

achieved on the back of a highly successful European election campaign.

Since the Nationalists' heyday of the mid 1970s, this month's poll

rating has been bettered only during the months following their Govan

by-election victory in 1988.

SNP leader Alex Salmond called the surge a ''dramatic sea-change in

opinion'' which could be put down to three factors.

He cited the party's ''head and heart'' campaign capitalising on the

Braveheart film while spelling out the economics of independence, a

highly successful conference, and a backlash against what he claimed had

been a negative smear campaign against them by Labour.

Mr Salmond said the poll tended to bear out what they were hearing on

the streets and he said that since the launch of their Braveheart

campaign, with activists leafleting cinema queues, membership

applications were running at the unprecedented rate of almost 60 a day.

He said: ''The last two months are of fundamental significance.''

It showed that their ''head and heart'' initiative was striking home

with great success.

''The more people see of the SNP, the more they appear to like us. In

contrast, the more people in Scotland see of New Labour, the less they

are trusted.

''Labour are not trusted on economic and social policies and on the

constitution, and are starting to suffer as a result for their

Southern-focused policies.

''In addition, (Shadow Scottish Secretary) George Robertson's

unpleasant smear campaign against the SNP has rebounded in spectacular


SNP strategists point out that all previous surges in support

comparable to this one have come on the back of hustings and electoral


Labour dismissed it as a ''rogue poll'' because it was conducted

between September 21 and 26, coinciding with the climax to the SNP

conference in Perth.

They refused to be rattled by the poll, even though others in England

in recent days indicated that the honeymoon period of Tony Blair's

leadership may be at an end.

Mr Robertson said: ''This is simply a rogue poll coinciding with the

maximum publicity from their conference.

''It was completely contradicted by the real poll which took place in

Dundee on September 14, when the Nationalists were badly beaten in an

area that used to be one of their strongholds.

''We have been at a very high level, historically, and there has been

some bad publicity over the summer affecting the national picture, but

our lead is still commanding and we remain the only party that can

challenge the Tories.''

Scottish Conservative chairman Sir Michael Hirst welcomed what he

termed the ''modest but steady'' improvement in their standing -- up 1%

since August -- adding: ''Labour's lead has come unstuck north and south

of the Border as the electorate increasingly sees through their

sound-bite and smile politics.''

Of the three-point rise in Scottish Liberal Democrat fortunes since

August, chief executive Andy Myles said: ''This increase is welcome and

reflects the strong, clear message that came out of our conference in


''The figures also show that Tony Blair's honeymoon is very definitely

over. People want clear, honest policies. Warm words are no longer


With the Tories unable to get above 13% in System Three polling all

year, Mr Salmond added: ''Michael Forsyth is proving to be the first

political leader in history to have no honeymoon period at all.''

Mr Salmond said he had been detecting straws in the wind over the

summer months that something unprecedented was stirring in the Scottish

electorate. Every previous SNP surge had been on the back of specific

electoral successes.

In June this year, a five-point jump to 27% was clearly attributable

to the Perth and Kinross by-election, while last year's July peak of 30%

stemmed from the party's European election campaign.

This month's second successive advance, he said, reflected the

benefits of their new campaigning style. ''I am happier about our

'hearts and heads' campaign than about anything we have done in years,''

he said.

''There is real power in the emotional appeal of Braveheart coupled to

an economic case for independence which is coming through very


This week, the party would be extending its Braveheart campaign, going

beyond targetting cinema audiences to making a more general appeal.

Braveheart, which features Mel Gibson as Sir William Wallace, has been

playing to packed houses in Scotland.

SNP chief executive Michael Russell said last night the leaflet drive

targetting filmgoers had been the most successful the Nationalists had

yet organised.

Thousands of people had returned reply-paid postcards asking for

information about joining the party.

''People really are responding to the film in an intelligent fashion.

They're saying that it raises the whole question of Scottish

independence, and that they're interested in it.''