THE Orange Order has given its backing to the SNP in protest over Labour-run Glasgow City Council's radical new policy to reduce parades.

Although they are vehemently opposed to the break-up of the Union, the order’s two most senior figures have told The Herald Orange Lodges swung behind the Nationalists in this month’s Holyrood election in protest against the new policy.

The organisation also plans to oppose Labour in next year’s local government elections, with a campaign starting this summer.

Henry Dunbar, Grand Master of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, said after failing to be satisfied that Labour MSPs could undo the policy, members in Glasgow and Lanarkshire were encouraged to vote SNP in the days before the election. The Orange Lodge claims a membership of 40,000 in Scotland.

The newly-elected Grand Master said in the previous four years the Orange Order had actively supported Labour as Scotland’s largest unionist party and had even canvassed for it during several by-elections.

Senior Labour sources have confirmed there were meetings with the Orange Order over parading in the run-up to the election. While there was a clear antipathy towards Labour they did not see this translating into a pro-SNP vote.

The order’s opposition will cause concern to the Labour administration in Glasgow, already facing a formidable challenge from the SNP at next year’s local government elections.

Its policy, to cut the number of parades in the city and keep them away from the city centre as far as possible, faces its first real test this summer.

The comments could also cause unease to the SNP, with First Minister Alex Salmond again speaking out against sectarianism in Parliament on Wednesday.

However, leading academics have cast doubt on the Orange Order’s ability to swing an electoral outcome and said sectional groups often claimed credit for influencing elections.

Mr Dunbar said: “I made a point in the week before the election of speaking with plenty of our members in the Glasgow and Lanarkshire areas. They’re disillusioned with Labour politicians and feel discriminated against by Glasgow City Council.

“Now they have swung their allegiance to the SNP. It’s a protest vote against Labour. We don’t tell people how to vote. We are a unionist organisation but this is the biggest threat to our religious and civil liberties.

“And we have the capacity to influence our members, and their families.”

Edward Hyde, Grand Secretary of the Orange Lodge, said: “We called meetings in 21 districts on the Thursday of the election and those areas fully turned against Labour. We’ve also had meetings with Labour MSPs and tried to tell them how our members felt.

“They empathised with our situation but said it wasn’t their policy to remove. Our campaign in the build-up to the local government elections in 2012 begins in August. You will see then what that will mean but it will be an anti-Labour campaign on the basis of how they’ve treated us.”

Mr Dunbar added: “Our membership will be targeting any council which targets the Orange family in Scotland.”

A spokesman for the council’s Labour administration said: “The policy is about striking a balance where we can protect people’s right to demonstrate without overwhelming the rights of the wider community.

“There is a need to do that in a sustainable and transparent way, where marching organisations can be clear what will be supported and, crucially, the public know how parades are handled.”

Professor James Mitchell, of Strathclyde University’s School of Government and Public Policy, said it was implausible for the Order to suggest it was the decisive factor in a swing to the SNP.

He said: “It is not uncommon for individuals and groups to claim credit for an electoral landslide. It is highly doubtful that the Orange Order operates as a block and that its leaders could successfully instruct members how to vote.”

An SNP spokesman said: “This claim lacks credibility and is not supported by the result. People vote on an individual basis, and the reality is that the SNP won the election in every part of Scotland .”