By Martin Kelly
The SNP’s Local Government Minister Derek Mackay has said the party is confident of making gains “across the country” and “in cities” as parties waited for counting to begin in Scotland.
Mr Mackay was speaking after voters turned out to cast their ballot in Scotland’s local authority elections.
Commenting on his party’s expectations, Mr Mackay said:
"The SNP has fought a positive campaign focused on jobs, families and fairness. Key commitments such as freezing the council tax until 2016, more free and flexible childcare, and guaranteed job and training opportunities for young people have resonated well on the doorsteps.
"We believe this has helped us to make advances in every area of the country, and we are hopeful that we will meet our objectives of winning more votes and more seats."
The SNP Minister also tantalisingly predicted an SNP win in one of Scotland’s major cities – although Glasgow was left out of the list of possibilities that included Edinburgh and Stirling.
The result of the Glasgow contest will be eagerly awaited and early reports suggest a close contest. A loss for Labour will signal a crisis for the party in Scotland.
Counts will begin early Friday and will be conducted using a new electronic system. Mr Mackay sought to allay fears over the use of the new machines and said: “The electronic counting system had been subjected to rigorous testing which should protect against the failures of the past.”
Turnout is expected to be low, despite polling day voters enjoying bright sunshine and a still, warm day. Coverage has also been hampered by media focus on attacks on First Minister Alex Salmond over his meetings with Rupert Murdoch.
The contest has also been marred after Unionist parties launched a personal attack on the integrity of top Civil Servant Sir Peter Housden after the mandarin rejected complaints that campaign rules had been broken by Mr Mackay.
Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie reacted to the official’s judgement by questioning his impartiality and labelling him “an SNP lackey” after Sir Peter ruled that an announcement of an agreement with Cosla by the Minister did not contravene election guidelines.
Speaking to the Scotsman newspaper, Mr Rennie said: “Yet again Sir Peter has failed to uphold the traditions of the independent civil service. He is acting more like an SNP lackey than the head of the Civil Service in Scotland.
“The SNP clearly broke ‘purdah’ rules by making an announcement on council funding during the election period. It was an election gimmick and an abuse of Derek Mackay’s position as local government minister.
“Sir Peter has repeatedly failed to take a balanced view of complaints against the SNP government. This is yet another decision that questions his impartiality. Sir Peter needs to be reminded that he works for the public, not for the SNP.”
Mr Rennie’s view was backed by Labour MSP Paul Martin who said: “The checks and balances that the permanent secretary is supposed to be providing in his role are being sorely missed and Sir Peter Housden seems content to cheer Alex Salmond on rather than scrutinise his conduct.”
Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: “I find it astonishing that a ministerial announcement in the middle of an election campaign does not contravene the purdah rules.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Government dismissed the attacks and said: “Announcements during the local government election period are a matter for Ministers. The announcement with Cosla resulted from an agreement between the Scottish Government and all Scottish local authorities and benefits all areas of Scotland.”
The announcement of an agreement between the SNP Government and local authorities signalled support for families on low incomes who faced losing council tax benefit after cuts from the UK coalition.