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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 21:04 GMT 22:04 UK

Poll brings bad news for Tories

By Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University

The final Scottish poll to be published during the election brings more bad news to the Conservatives.

It suggests that the party may now be in danger of losing third place in votes to the Liberal Democrats.

The poll conducted by ICM for The Scotsman puts the two parties neck and neck on 14%.

This is the first time that ICM has failed to put the Conservatives ahead of the Liberal Democrats since the company started polling in Scotland in 1988.

This bad news for the Conservatives follows the publication of two constituency polls on Sunday in the Eastwood and the Edinburgh Pentlands constituencies, two of the party's key hopes for regaining representation at Westminster.

These polls suggested the Conservatives were heading for defeat in both seats.

Indeed it looks as though there may well be few changes of any kind in the pattern of Scottish representation at Westminster.

True, the latest ICM poll suggests there will be a small swing from Labour to the Scottish National Party since 1997.

The poll puts Labour on 43%, down three on 1997, and the SNP on 24%, up two.

These figures suggest the SNP might capture Inverness East from Labour but that it is unlikely to pick up many other pickings.

The Liberal Democrats should hold all of their current ten seats.

An earlier System Three poll in last Friday's The Herald newspaper, however, puts Labour on 47%, up just one point on the last Westminster election, while the Scottish National Party is up four at 26%.

On these figures Labour might not lose any seats at all.

The poll also brought bad news for the Conservatives who were on 13%, down four on 1997, though the Lib Dems were also down two at 11%.

However these Conservative and Labour figures are very similar to what those two parties obtained in System Three's polls before the 1997 election.

So this poll might be interpreted to mean that the Conservatives could hold their 1997 share of 17%.

Even so, that still does not suggest the Tories have much prospect of gaining a seat.

'English party'

The polls have however brought cheer to the Scottish Socialist Party which may well achieve its target of winning 100,000 votes.

System Three gave the SSP 3%, and ICM no less than 4%.

The lack of any apparent Conservative advance in Scotland will be the source of some concern to Tory Leader William Hague.

Despite the party's acceptance of devolution nearly a half of Scots still regard the Conservatives as a 'mainly English' party.

Meanwhile, Mr Hague himself is labelled the most unpopular party leader north of the Border.

Westminster elections

In the last System Three poll, no less than 57% of those polled said that they dislike him a lot, nearly twice as many as dislike any of the other party leaders.

The polls also suggest that devolution may not be having as much impact on Westminster elections in Scotland as some had feared.

ICM find in their latest poll that 66% said they were certain to vote, eight points higher than in the same company's last British poll for The Guardian.

So it appears that Scots will not be more likely to stay away from the polls because they feel that Westminster does not matter any more now that they have their own parliament at Westminster.

Equally, even though they are run in Scotland by the Scottish Executive, health and education appear to be the issues that matter most to Scots, just as they do to voters south of the border.

As many as 71% told System Three that health was a key issue, while 54% mentioned education.

Perceptions of the parties

In fact, despite devolution, voters still believe that Westminster has a lot of influence on matters like health and education in Scotland.

According to ICM nearly two in three Scots believe that the UK government has at least as much influence as does the Scottish Executive on the quality of the NHS and of schools in Scotland.

Indeed, despite the existence of the Scottish Parliament, no less than 83% of Scots believe that Scotland should still have her own Secretary of State in the UK Cabinet.

The existence of a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition also does not seem to have made much difference to voters' perceptions of the parties.

Only 29% of Scots agree that 'the Liberal Democrats these days are no different to Labour'.

But the election campaign has opened up a new debate about how the new Scottish Parliament should be funded in future.

The SNP have argued it should raise its own taxes because under the current arrangements Scotland's share of UK government expenditure is set to fall.

However, only 17% of Scots believe that Scotland's share of UK public expenditure will fall over the next five years.


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