Salmond buries SNP polling information – even though it's bad for his opponents.

Iain GrayWhat do you do if, through your own polling, you find something which might prove uncomfortable for your opponent? If you are Alex Salmond and your opponent is Iain Gray, you sit on it.

Why? Because the SNP leader has decided that any publicity, however much it might embarrass the Scottish Labour leader in the short term, would raise his profile and that‘s not what he wants to do.

As is the case with every major party these days, the SNP conducts opinion polling of its own. The questions are often more specific than in major, public opinion polls because the party concerned wants to discover public attitudes to particular issues and politicians.

The SNP polled across Scotland on the relative public profiles of Mr Salmond and his Labour opponent, Mr Gray.

The results were startling. They surprised even the more experienced members of the SNP campaign team. They showed that almost everyone knew who Mr Salmond was but, for Mr Gray, public recognition was embarrassingly low.

What to do with results? There was a move by some in the SNP to make the results public, to embarrass Mr Gray by showing just how anonymous he is in Scotland.

This short-term political hit was dismissed by Mr Salmond who decided, after some of the newspapers had been sounded out about the idea, that the results would not be released.

He didn’t do it to save his opponent from a political bashing, nor because he wanted to conduct the debate on a higher intellectual plane. He did it because he didn’t want to be responsible for even the smallest breath of publicity going the way of his Labour opponent.

It is better to keep Mr Gray out of the papers, the SNP leader reasoned, then put him in the papers – even in an embarrassing way.
And this is the way the SNP is going to operate until polling day in May. Don’t mention Mr Gray unless you have to and never give him a platform to build his profile. SNP managers know that, in Mr Salmond, they have the most recognisable politician in Scotland and, in a tight race, that could be one of the deciding factors.

It is true that Mr Gray is in a difficult position. He is the first Scottish Labour leader to go into an election since devolution without the status and recognition that office brings.

Donald Dewar was Scottish Secretary when he fought the election in 1999. Jack McConnell was First Minister when he fought the elections of 2003 and 2007.

Mr Salmond was not the incumbent when he won in 2007 but he had been in front-line politics for 20 years or more so was well known to the voters.

Mr Gray doesn’t have that advantage but, more than that, he is fighting someone in Mr Salmond who boasts 90 per cent or more public recognition (according to a straw poll in The Scottish Daily Mail today).

It is always difficult, fighting an incumbent in office but more so when that person is very well known and you are not. But Labour don’t – as yet – seem to have done anything to try to change this imbalance. Mr Gray’s speech at last year’s Scottish Labour conference was the first real attempt to get across the personal, the passionate and the committed sides to his character.
However, no-one really watched that speech outside the Scottish political village, where everyone knows who he is anyway. The task for Labour is to try to raise Mr Gray’s profile with ordinary voters because they haven’t done much good at that so far.

A Daily Mail reporter asked voters outside Mr Gray’s constituency office in East Lothian whether they knew who he was and only eight out of twenty recognised his picture – while 19 out of 20 recognised Mr Salmond. If he can’t score better than that in the heart of his own constituency, then he really is in trouble.

SNP strategists know this which is why this campaign, for them, will be all about Mr Salmond.

Labour strategists know this as well, which is why their campaign will be about everything except Mr Salmond.
As a result, we are set for a strange personality campaign which will be all about Mr Salmond from one side but not about Mr Gray and all about Mr Gray from the other side and not about Mr Salmond.

Labour strategists believe that their man will benefit from the leaders’ debates, and they may be right. These events tend to favour the challenger, not the incumbent, because it puts both on an equal footing – at least for the duration of the debate.

Mr Gray will be able to raise his profile during those debates but will have to hope that he also is seen as combative and competent enough to score a draw with Mr Salmond in the content of the debates as well.

If he isn’t, then no amount of publicity or profile raising will off-set the boost Mr Salmond will get from winning the debate itself.
It has been a good week for the SNP. First, the £500,000 donation from Brian Souter, then a poll in The Times yesterday giving the Nationalists a lead over Labour which would see them back in charge of the Scottish Government.

As a result, the election race is wide open. If they haven’t realised it already, Labour strategists should know by now that they are in a real fight to win the election in May. They also know that Labour in general and Mr Gray in particular have to start fighting if they are not to lose their second contest in a row to the SNP.