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Douglas Ross has urged unionists to vote Labour or LibDem if they are better placed to defeat the SNP, amid growing fears that Nicola Sturgeon is cruising to a huge Holyrood majority.
The Scottish Tory leader on Thursday endorsed widespread tactical voting in an effort to prevent the nationalists claiming a mandate for a new independence referendum, saying that “people should vote for the strongest party to stop the SNP” in constituencies.
He claimed that the second ballot - used to elect regional rather than constituency MSPs - is more important in May’s election and called for unionists across the country to back the Conservatives with this vote, regardless of where they live.
There is growing alarm among Conservative strategists that fringe parties, such as George Galloway’s All For Unity, will cost established pro-UK parties vital regional votes meaning Scottish Greens, or candidates from Alex Salmond’s Alba Party, will be elected instead.
A new poll showed on Thursday that the SNP is currently on course to win 53 per cent of constituency and 44 per cent of regional votes, which would translate to an SNP majority of 13 seats.
Such a result would see Ms Sturgeon claim an overwhelming mandate for a new referendum on leaving the UK.
Challenged on a BBC Radio Scotland phone in by a Conservative supporter who said he was planning to vote Labour in his constituency as the Tories had "no chance" of winning the seat, Mr Ross said: “Across the country people should look at their individual constituency and vote for the strongest candidate, which in most cases is a Conservative candidate, to defeat the SNP.”
Pushed over whether this would mean voting Labour in the caller’s seat, he said: “People should vote for the strongest party to stop the SNP”.
While public opinion on leaving the UK is evenly split, the SNP benefits from being the only major pro-independence party standing in constituencies.
The Opinium poll predicted that the Greens would win six seats and the SNP 71, meaning pro-independence parties would hold 77 of Holyrood’s 129 seats.
The Tories were on course to win 27 seats and Labour 21, both reductions on 2016 tallies, the survey found. However, just two per cent of voters are planning to back Mr Salmond's party, which would see it fail to win a single MSP.
According to a tactical voting guide produced by the pro-UK campaign group Scotland in Union, Labour is the main opposition to the SNP in 35 constituencies, the Tories in 32 and the Liberal Democrats in six.
“The SNP will use every vote it receives to argue for another referendum on its negative vision to leave the UK,” a spokesman for Scotland in Union said.
“If you do not want your vote at this election to be used to divide our communities, friends and families, consider tactically voting for the best-placed pro-UK party to stop the SNP in your constituency, and voting for one of the three main pro-UK parties - the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats - on the regional list."
The Tories devoted their first televised party political broadcast this week to urging voters to back the party with their second ballot, in a sign of alarm that the public does not understand the importance of the regional ballots or the complicated voting system.
Constituencies are elected on first-past-the-post, the same as Westminster, but regional seats are distributed under a system designed to make the final result more proportional.
While the Tories won seven constituencies in 2016, 24 Conservative MSPs were elected as regional MSPs. Labour won just three constituencies, but 21 regional MSPs.
Asked whether he would reciprocate Mr Ross’s call by urging his supporters to vote for other pro-UK parties if they were better placed than Labour to defeat the nationalists in constituencies, Anas Sarwar declined to do so.
“What I don’t think politicians should do is attempt to game the system,” the Scottish Labour leader said. “Individuals can make their own choice when it comes to voting in this election.
“We have a failing government on one side, and a game-playing, cheap opposition on the other."