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By G.A.Ponsonby

It's the single most fought over issue in Scottish politics after independence.

The brainchild of Finance Secretary John Swinney in 2007 after the SNP's local income tax idea hit the buffers, the council tax freeze has been a torch held aloft by the SNP and a thorn in the side of the Scottish Labour party ever since.

It has reared its head again with a survey last week which claimed to show support for an end to the freeze.  Two thirds of Scots, we were told, would happily pay more if it meant local services could be guaranteed.

There's little doubt that the BBC overreacted massively to what was a very simplistic and leading survey question by yet another 'commission'.  Nevertheless the council tax freeze is indeed back on the agenda, and just in time for a local by-election.

A day after the BBC headlined the result of the survey, it emerged that the Labour candidate in the Cowdenbeath by-election had been filmed attacking the council tax freeze and suggesting councils should be allowed to increase the tax.

Alex Rowley's comments were seized on by his main rival.  The SNP candidate Natalie McGarry issued a press statement attacking Rowley's call for the freeze to end.

It's clear that the SNP see the council tax freeze as a campaign bonus.  But where does this leave Scottish Labour?

Last October in Dunfermline, Johann Lamont's party navigated this particular obstacle by (again) altering its stance during the campaign.  The now infamous leaflet in which Labour claimed to support the freeze probably helped the now forgotten Cara Hilton to win that contest.

Immediately after the Dunfermline by-election, Labour mounted an attack on the freeze describing as a "prolonged" policy that helps "the rich prosper".  Johann Lamont called for it to end telling the BBC it was "not working".

Would Labour, notwithstanding the video of Rowley attacking the freeze, risk trying to fool the electorate again?

Scottish Labour's ability to embrace the council tax freeze when an election campaign is underway is the stuff of legend.

In 2011, when led by Iain Gray and his deputy Johann Lamont, the party adopted the policy towards the end of the Scottish election campaign.  However it was dropped immediately afterwards when Lamont sought to distance Scottish Labour from it.

In the aftermath of Labour's defeat in the May 2011 Holyrood elections, Lamont called the council tax freeze "unrealistic" and "reckless" and said it should be scrapped.

The 'freeze benefits the rich' mantra quickly became the Scottish Labour line, the council tax freeze was an attack on local democracy they said and was threatening public services.

The leader of Glasgow council, Gordon Matheson, accused the Scottish Government of holding a gun to his head.

Moving into 2012 however and Scottish Labour performed another volte face when Lamont stood beside the same Glasgow council Labour group leader whose number one pledge was a five year council tax freeze.

One Labour local group actually went further and in Stirling an alliance with the Conservatives saw the council tax actually reduced by one per cent.

Last week's survey, which was heavily promoted by BBC Scotland, may or may not have been an attempt at preparing the ground for a Scottish Labour attack on the council tax freeze.

If Lamont has indeed decided to fight the Cowdenbeath by-election by ditching support for the freeze then the reporting of the survey won't have harmed such a strategy.

However there is a danger in relying on such loaded survey questions when determining strategy.

Even supporters of the council tax freeze would be hard pressed not to agree to this type of question.

I would be willing to pay more council tax if I was certain the money raised was spent on local services such as schools and care for older people.

That 64% of people agreed with this is not surprising.  Indeed it isn't asking about the freeze, just on the principle of paying more for agreed outcomes.  As such, even supporters of the current freeze may well have agreed with the proposition.

The survey commissioned by the so called Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy contained so many loaded questions that much of it was virtually useless – one question received 93% agreement from respondents.

Claiming they are willing to pay more for better services is the norm when the public are asked about tax-rises to fund good causes.  The problem is that any political party adopting such a policy at election time is usually hammered at the polls.

There was another interesting aspect of last week's reported survey that didn't make the headlines, and it was the response to the following question.

I think councils have enough money to deliver the services my community needs.

More people agreed with this (49%) than didn't (44%).

Cowdenbeath is a by-election that nobody anticipated and it's fair to say, given the tragic passing of Helen Eadie which led to the contest, nobody wanted.

However it's going to be held, and the issue of the council tax freeze may well turn out to be a defining one.

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