ALEX Salmond urged voters to focus on the SNP's record at ­Holyrood as he launched his party's Cowdenbeath by-election campaign.

The First Minister attempted to play down the impact of the ­independence referendum on the January 23 by-election to replace long-serving Labour MSP Helen Eadie, who died in November following a battle with cancer.

He insisted voters would turn their backs on Labour as a result of popular SNP policies such as the council tax freeze and new pledges, made this week, to provide free school meals for pupils up to primary three and to expand free childcare to youngsters from poorer homes.

Touring a factory with SNP candidate Natalie McGarry, he said Holyrood's forthcoming budget vote on the issues would "crystallise" voters' minds.

He said: "The Budget will propose all of these measures - school meals, childcare, the ­council tax freeze. Therefore the people in this constituency can either have Natalie, who will vote for all these things, or they can have a Labour candidate who may or may not - and might, as is the case with school meals, vote with the Tories again."

He said the SNP remained ahead of Labour in polls despite being in power for more than six years.

He said: "That's impressive stuff but you don't rest on your laurels. Everything has to be earned and we'll work very hard for every vote. We're making no vainglorious boast."

Ms McGarry, a charity policy adviser, newspaper columnist and founder member of the Women for Independence campaign group, also claimed local issues would dominate, though she admitted September's independence referendum had become "quite a big issue on the doorsteps".

She said: "The referendum is being brought up with us almost unparalleled in any election or by-election I've ever been in. With it coming up in 2014, I think it's concentrated people's minds."

Her campaign will follow the same pattern as the SNP's efforts in recent by-election in Aberdeen Donside, a seat the party held, and Dunfermline, which Labour claimed, by playing down independence.

A Scottish Labour spokesman said: "With nine months to go Alex Salmond wants to talk about anything but independence, because he knows how unpopular it is."

Candidate Alex Rowley, the leader of Fife Council and a long-time political ally of Gordon Brown, will join the former Prime Minister and Scottish Labour deputy leader Anas Sarwar at a campaign event in Lochgelly today designed to highlight the party's support for staying part of the UK.

Labour campaign chiefs believe the independence referendum will damage the SNP's chances. They have already claimed leaving the UK would hit jobs at the Rosyth naval dockyard - a major local employer that depends on UK defence contracts for work.

The by-election is seen as a two-horse race between Labour and the SNP, with Mr Rowley as clear favourite.

At the last Holyrood election in 2011, Labour won with 46.5% of the vote compared with the SNP's 41.6%. It was the only Fife constituency not won by the SNP as Mr Salmond's party romped to a landslide victory across Scotland.

Also on the campaign trail yesterday, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson launched her party's bid to win the seat.

Candidate Dave Dempsey, also a councillor, accused the SNP of starving the area of cash and called for funding to help regenerate town centres.

He said: "Times are tough for retailers and the SNP should be seeking to help them."

Scots LibDem leader Willie Rennie meanwhile backed his party's candidate Jade Holden, an IT worker, saying she would be a "breath of fresh air" at Holyrood.