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Wednesday, September 22, 1999 Published at 09:19 GMT 10:19 UK

UK: Scotland

Nationalists in modernising mood

The nationalist MSPs celebrate election success

Scottish National Party activists have been urged to join in modernising the party as they gather for their annual conference in Inverness.

The party will be told it must become more organised and concentrate on winning the 2003 elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Mike Russell: "We did exceptionally well in the election"
Nationalists meet to celebrate their success in gaining 35 seats in elections to the new parliament in May.

However, former chief executive Mike Russell, who is now a South of Scotland region MSP, said the party "could do better" and must set its sights on toppling Labour in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2003.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, Mr Russell said the party has reason to celebrate its success but must move forward.

[ image: Mike Russell:
Mike Russell: "Looking to the future"
He defended the party's "penny for Scotland" policy, which was criticised in some quarters as a vote loser during the elections, and said a "whispering campaign" against Alex Salmond would fail to unseat him as leader.

Mr Russell said: "We did exceptionally well in the election. We are the official opposition and this is a unique SNP conference with 35 MSPs, the largest number of parliamentarians we have ever had."

In media interviews prior to the conference, Mr Russell, who was campaign manager during the Scottish elections, gave a candid assessment of the SNP's performance.

He said the campaign lacked funding and needed more grassroots organisation.

He also said the SNP's high profile "penny for Scotland" campaign policy, which urged Scots to forego the penny cut in income tax proposed in Chancellor Gordon Brown's budget, started too late.

BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor on the SNP's post-election strategy
But the South of Scotland MSP said he was not making a negative criticism of the campaign.

"What I am doing is looking at the experience of the election campaign as I must as campaign director and I said what worked and what didn't work.

"But I go back to the earlier point - we come to this conference with 35 MSPs - a record for the SNP.

"We have done spectacularly well, given our resources and our abilities to operate within a political scene in which we get very few favours, particularly from the media."

Mr Russell conceded that the "penny for Scotland" campaign sufffered from a lack of clarity and forward thinking.

However, he said the SNP was forced to act because the chancellor was seeking to make political capital.

He said: "I profoundly believe that people are fed up with dishonest taxation and want honest taxation and they don't want a Dutch auction on the question of income tax.

[ image: Alex Salmond: Vote of confidence]
Alex Salmond: Vote of confidence
"So what we have to do is to have a taxation policy within the next 18 months to two years that is going to take us through to the 2003 election."

Mr Russell dismissed suggestions that Mr Salmond's leadership was being challenged by a "whispering campaign" within the SNP ranks and said he had no intention of seeking to challenge him for the leadership.

"The whispering campaign, and I will say this out loud, is that Alex Salmond is the best leader the SNP has ever had, the leader who will take us to independence. Alex Salmond is 'the man' for the SNP," he said.

Mr Salmond, who is now the UK's longest established party leader, is expected to expand and clarify the "penny for Scotland" policy, the party's relationship with Europe and a strategy for independence when he addresses the conference on Friday.

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