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Anas Sarwar: I can’t afford an “unpopular” Labour government

The Scottish Labour leader on why defeating the SNP depends on his party delivering at Westminster.

By Chris Deerin

I look at my phone, which rests on the table and is silently recording every word, and then I look back up at Anas Sarwar and wonder whether he’s temporarily forgotten this. The Scottish Labour leader and the man increasingly tipped to become Scotland’s next first minister has just outlined his pre-match warm-up. And, well, wow…

“To gee myself up before any speech or big event or TV debate I listen to music,” he beams. “My songs of choice are ‘Eye of the Tiger’, Bruno Mars’s ‘Uptown Funk’, ‘Where is the Love?’ by Black Eyed Peas, and a bit of Dr Dre.” He adds that his aides patiently, and no doubt nervously, fill in as human punchbags “while I do my ‘Eye of the Tiger’ stuff before I go on”.

One’s mind inevitably drifts towards David Brent, but a giggling Sarwar seems genuinely delighted to have let me in on his secret. And in truth – as throughout our interview – he is so open, full of passion and pep, that he just about gets away with it. Even that old grump Gordon Brown pretended to like the Arctic Monkeys because “they really get you up in the morning”. In contrast, Sarwar’s occasional lack of guile is rather charming.

Spending time with the 40-year-old Labour leader is a little like standing beside an electricity substation. He gives off a constant hum of energy, and has an enormous coffee from Starbucks at his side in our Holyrood meeting room. He clearly struggles to sit still – an adviser describes him as “a fidget” – and shadow cabinet colleagues speak with awe of his seemingly boundless reserves.

Where does it come from? “I love projects,” he says, briefly threatening to veer into Gervais territory again. “I always set myself a goal every day, an outcome. I’m not a half measures kind of person – I’m either all in or I’m out. And I’m all in on this project of changing Scotland.”

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The imminence of power, with Keir Starmer likely to enter Downing Street later this year, is concentrating Sarwar’s restless mind. He hopes the SNP’s decline and Labour’s rise will deliver Bute House to him at the next Holyrood election in 2026.

On Friday this week, as Scottish Labour gathers for its conference in Glasgow, Sarwar will publish a paper setting out some of the economic policies he intends to pursue. Much of it might be described as “Burnhamism” – Sarwar and his team have spent time with the Greater Manchester mayor and are attracted by his approach of using the limited powers he has to get things done. The paper will include Burnham-style proposals to reform planning laws so that key projects receive approval faster, a “decluttering” of Scotland’s overcrowded enterprise network, reform of the “completely broken” business rates system, and greater partnership between Scotland’s education system and industry. There is also an intention to introduce a new version of the Fresh Talent Initiative, which under a previous devolved Labour government allowed overseas students to stay on for two years following graduation and find employment.

“We’ve got to stop pretending we don’t have levers here in Scotland,” Sarwar says. “Outside of London, Greater Manchester is attracting the most inward investment and the fastest growth. At the moment it feels like the Scottish government makes decisions to business rather than with business, and that acts against the interests of our economic opportunities rather than for them.”

Sarwar is obsessed with growing the economy – “we’re putting it front and centre of everything we’re doing” – and not just because it’s widely seen as one of the SNP’s weakest areas of performance over the past decade. Higher growth would allow him to reduce the tax burden on Scots – those who earn above £28,500 pay more than other Britons, while Scotland now has six separate tax bands compared to Westminster’s three. And if Labour is to deliver reform to creaking public services, the funds will have to come from somewhere.

“We have a Scottish government that’s using income tax as a political performance tool rather than to create a better economy and deliver quality public services,” he says. “If you look at the tax change right at the top [those earning above £125,140 pay a rate of 48 per cent], any government that receives independent advice that 90 per cent of what they expect to raise will be lost due to behavioural change but still chooses to make that decision in order to achieve, in the best-case scenario, £8m, shows that this is political performance rather than strategic economic management.”

Which begs an obvious question: would you scrap the top rate?

“I’m not saying we’d scrap it. We’re going to have to address the imbalance and we’re going to have to reduce the tax burden for working people, but what we can’t do is make a tax commitment two-and-a-bit years out from a Scottish Parliament election, when we don’t know the financial and economic inheritance. Which is predicted to be an absolute disaster. 

“But let me be really clear: right now, income tax, and the increase in income tax, is a barrier for people. When [the Scottish government] talk about people with the broadest shoulders paying higher tax in Scotland, that’s someone earning £28,500. Their mortgage might have gone up by £2,000 in the last year, their energy bill is double what it was two years ago and food prices are more than 20 per cent higher. Those families are really struggling. They are not well off, and anyone who pretends that they are is completely disconnected from reality.”

Sarwar is determined to stay connected. He attends Holyrood for only two days each week, and this nuclear-powered politician seems to spend the rest of his time lapping Scotland. “I try to be out as much as possible because to be honest there’s no undecideds in the parliament. There’s no votes to be won in the parliament because the SNP and the Greens have a majority. The undecideds, the people we need to persuade and learn from and develop the alternative with, are round the country.”

The past year has seen an extraordinary recovery in Scottish Labour’s fortunes. Before the surprise resignation of Nicola Sturgeon last February, few would have given Sarwar much chance of becoming first minister in 2026. But the SNP’s subsequent decline in the polls, the failure of Sturgeon’s anointed successor Humza Yousaf to convince, as well as the various scandals besetting the SNP, have combined with the prospect of a UK Labour government to refocus voters’ minds.

Sarwar’s diary is now crammed. Suddenly, everyone wants to know him and find out what his plans are – it was telling that the party’s gala dinner in Glasgow before Christmas, which in recent years had been a bit desolate, sold out almost instantly and was full of well-known faces from business. “It’s almost three years since I became leader and it’s safe to say we used to have to force ourselves into rooms. Now we’re being welcomed into lots of rooms,” he says. 

“People questioned the survival of the Labour Party, never mind the revival of it. I think that mindset change is incredible, but that’s a reason for us to get serious. I’ve made it clear to our shadow cabinet that the exam question for Scottish Labour has changed. Three years ago it was ‘will you survive?’. Two years ago it was ‘what’s the point?’. A year ago it was ‘are you a credible opposition?’. Now it’s ‘what would you do differently if you form the government?’”

Before Sarwar, Scottish Labour drifted through a succession of leaders, all of whom struggled to boost its fortunes. The party ended up in third place at Holyrood behind the SNP and the Tories. The Corbyn years only cemented a view among mainstream voters that it had become a self-indulgent irrelevance. “The Labour Party had to change,” Sarwar says. “I’m not one of those leaders who thinks we were right, our policies were right, but the electorate were wrong. The reality is we lost because we deserved to lose, and we kept losing because we weren’t good enough. Me and Keir both had our worst result in Westminster terms, the worst result in Scottish Parliament terms, but we believed we could turn that around and in a space of time that no one thought was possible. Some people might have called us deluded but we never stopped believing.”

Such has been the length and scale of the SNP’s hegemony, such has been its ability to set the parameters of what’s acceptable, that some worry Labour will struggle to shift a political culture that has become obsessed with constitutional change and the weaknesses of Westminster, and an approach to policy that has focused almost exclusively on social justice. Polls show that as Holyrood enters its 25th year, a rising number of voters have grown disappointed with the parliament’s performance, sometimes wondering what the point of devolution even is. “It’s been largely a social policy parliament rather than an economic policy parliament,” the Labour leader admits. If he wins, he wants to correct that.

The recent arrival of the Covid i tnquiry in Edinburgh and the damage it caused to the reputations of senior SNP figures owing to deleted WhatsApp messages and certain ill-advised exchanges, has, Sarwar thinks, only heightened the need for change. At the 2021 Holyrood election, amid the pandemic, voters looked at Sturgeon and, whether they supported independence or not, “thought ‘she’s doing her best, she deserves our thanks, we should let her finish the job of getting through the pandemic’, and they believed her when she said this parliament should be about Covid recovery. And I think those people in particular are going to feel absolutely betrayed, and that the trust is broken.”

These are the voters Labour has to attract if it is to return to government north of the border. Sarwar has an unusual, almost time-limited pitch to independence supporters. “I genuinely do not care how someone voted in either of the two referendums and I largely don’t care how they would vote in any future referendum either. I don’t support independence, I don’t support a referendum right now, but I can totally understand why the overwhelming majority of this country are crying out for change, why so many people in Scotland have wanted to run a million miles away from this rotten Tory government. I’m making a direct appeal to people – we may disagree on the final destination for Scotland, but we can all agree we need change, so let’s go on this part of the journey together, deliver that change, boot out the Tories, maximise Scotland’s influence and allow a UK Labour government to demonstrate to you that we can make government work for every part of the country, including here in Scotland.”

In recent years, he and Starmer have become close friends and even closer political allies. Their fortunes are umbilically linked: Starmer needs a revival in Scotland to become prime minister (the party currently holds just two seats north of the border) and Sarwar needs a Labour government at Westminster to improve his chances of winning in 2026. There are talks ongoing between north and south about how the period between 2024 and 2026 will be managed. It’s important they get this right – fail, and allow enough Scots to believe that even a Labour government cannot make the Union work for them, and the SNP will quickly be back. It could ultimately prove fatal for the UK.

“I am really open with Keir and the UK shadow cabinet that I want to and need to be going into a 2026 election in the midterm of a popular Labour government, not an unpopular one,” Sarwar says. “No one’s expecting us to fix everything in the first two years, UK-wide – they know there’s a lot of damage to repair. But in that two-year period we have to start demonstrating the direction of what that change means and hopefully people start to feel the benefits, whether that be in their bills, their pay packet, working conditions or indeed the confidence of people to invest in Scotland and the UK so we start getting our growth up.

“I then think, in 2026, the Scottish Parliament election campaign will be decided on one fundamental question: do you believe Scotland achieves more by working with a UK Labour government to maximise delivery in Scotland, or by fighting with a UK Labour government and that then achieves more for Scotland? It’s going to be a cooperation vs conflict decision. We’ll have to tell a story about how the relationship with the UK can change positively. What we then do after 2026 if we have the good fortune to be in government will be a huge driver of how people feel both within Scotland but also how they feel within the UK.”

He doesn’t believe the electorates of north and south are all that different, anyway, even when it comes to controversial topics such as immigration. “We have a sense of Scottish exceptionalism where we automatically think we have a different view on these issues as a public compared to other parts of the UK. I spent quite a lot of time during the local elections in England last year in the ‘Red Wall’. Like Scotland, it’s become a symbol of what’s going to happen at the next general election. There’s been this framing as if the needs and desires, the hopes and aspirations, of Red Wall England don’t match those of the central belt of Scotland. Actually, I think that completely misunderstands both communities. They are remarkably similar – both feel a disconnect to politics, be that at Westminster or now at Holyrood as well. Both feel a sense of economic insecurity, both feel an anger that the system doesn’t work for them and therefore want to find a way to send a message to the system, in many ways smash the system. I think that’s a large part of why those communities voted for Brexit. In many ways I think many people in the central belt of Scotland did the same around the independence referendum and were saying this is not working for us, our lives are not getting better.”

It is time for Scotland to turn outwards, away from its fractious internal debates, he says. Sarwar wants to boost the nation’s “soft power”, learning lessons from the Irish in terms of maximising connections to the diaspora and potentially boosting inward investment from the US and Canada. “We have spent the last 17 years selling Scotland to the Scots. We’ve forgotten how to sell Scotland to the rest of the UK and the rest of the world.”

Before zooming off to his next appointment, Sarwar tells me of an unlikely inspiration behind his approach to leadership. He is “obsessed”, he says, with Jose Mourinho. “When he came into English football and classed himself as ‘the special one’, I completely bought into the mindset. I studied how he did his team building, media management, tactics, the importance of winning. 

“When I was in university as a dental student, every week a different member of our class had to do a 30-minute presentation that was nothing to do with dentistry. I did my presentation on ‘arrogance vs confidence – the story of Jose Mourinho’, and why what looks to many as arrogance actually is an inner confidence that then transfers to his team and the way they play and the hunger to win. I hope people see that in me, winning for a purpose.”

It seems somewhat unkind to point out that, infamously, things always go wrong for Mourinho in year three. Especially when the irrepressible but not arrogant Anas Sarwar is flying so high, and seems as if he will fly higher still.

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[See also: Michael Matheson’s resignation deepens Humza Yousaf’s woes]

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