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13 October 2017updated 29 Aug 2023 7:59pm

Scottish Labour leadership hopeful Anas Sarwar: “I’m the anti-establishment candidate“

Sarwar was seen as the frontrunner to succeed Kezia Dugdale. Then the negative headlines began. 

By Julia Rampen

One day, when Anas Sarwar was a boy, he left his Glasgow home to go to school and found a letter on the doorstep. “I rather stupidly picked it up and opened it,” Sarwar, now 34, recalls. “There was a picture mocked up of my mum, tied to a chair, with two guns pointed to her head, saying ‘bang bang, that’s all it takes’ in those cut-out words.

“That’s quite difficult when you’re a young child, and it’s quite difficult when you have to go to the police station because they want to rule out whose fingerprints are on the letter.”

Growing up with your dad as Britain’s first Muslim MP, it seems, comes at a price. As well as the letter, there were abusive phone calls, hate mail, long absences and the controversies that come with a career in politics. Yet Anas Sarwar left a career in dentistry to follow his father, Mohammed, into politics, and now wants to be the leader of Scottish Labour. Why?

“When my father finally accepted I was never going to go into politics, that’s when I probably started thinking about going into politics,” Sarwar says when I meet him in his campaign office on a sunny but stormy Glasgow morning. Then he adds a second reason: “You can try and prove the haters wrong.”

With his rolled-up shirtsleeves, youth and conversational style, Sarwar seems every aspect the modern politician. His rise has been swift. Elected to his father’s old seat of Glasgow Central in 2010, he became Scottish Labour deputy leader a year later and was briefly acting leader in 2014. Then, in the devastating election of 2015, he lost his seat. Undeterred, he stood in the Scottish Parliament elections the following year, and became an MSP for the Glasgow region.

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When Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale resigned in August, Sarwar seemed the obvious frontrunner. Although he had not backed Jeremy Corbyn in 2016, the Labour leader’s most prominent allies in Scotland ruled themselves out of the race. The left’s candidate, Richard Leonard, was almost unknown outside party circles.

Yet Sarwar’s campaign was quickly mired in controversy. First, it emerged that his family’s wholesale business did not pay the real living wage of £8.45 an hour (it pays the current minimum wage of £7.50 an hour). Sarwar relinquished his stake in the firm. But there was still the awkward fact that he sent his son to the same fee-paying school he had attended. The Sun referred to him as a “millionaire Blairite”.

“I accept that it is legitimate for people to ask about decisions I make in my private and political life,” Sarwar says. What he bristles at is the idea that his politics are in question. “I belong in the Labour Party,” he insists.

He points out that before politics, he was an NHS dentist, not a businessman. As for admiring the former prime minister Tony Blair, he scoffs at the idea. The war in Iraq, he says, was “the worst foreign policy decision in my lifetime”. He spent the Blair years “agitating and wishing for the Brown years” (Gordon Brown remains a hero to him).

What about sending his son to private school? Sarwar says it was a decision that “a couple made in the privacy of their own home”. His wife, he notes, has the right to her own views: “I respect her right.” Then he says something which sounds controversial in this age of authenticity: “You can only judge someone’s politics by the policies they believe in, rather than the suit they wear, the aftershave they wear or who their friends are.”

Sarwar’s pitch to Scottish Labour is pro-Europe. He wants to stay in the single market and customs union, even if it clashes with views in his party’s London HQ. He joined calls for Corbyn to quit after Brexit, but has more recently praised him and hopes to work “collegiately” with the leader’s team. Nevertheless, he adds: “If the situation arose, I would pick Scotland and the Scottish Labour Party.”

If Sarwar won, he would be the first British Asian leader of any political party. He has not faced the kind of smears that another Muslim politician, Sadiq Khan, had to contend with when running for election. Nevertheless, the columnist Stephen Daisley wrote that he detected “a whiff of a whiff” in the media’s fascination with the family cash and carry business.

Sarwar himself brushes off the idea. “I’m not saying for a second social media feeds haven’t been horrific in terms of Islamophobia and racism,” he says. “But in terms of the actual contest itself, my ethnicity, the colour of my skin and my religion hasn’t been a feature of this campaign.” All the same, he thinks for Scottish Labour to have an ethnic minority leader would “send a message about Scotland, an open, diverse, outward-looking nation”.

Sarwar still has a month and a half to make his case before the poll closes on 17 November. Those endorsing him include the former chancellor Alistair Darling. Yet the unions have backed his rival, and already Labour insiders are expecting Leonard to win. So is Sarwar the anti-establishment candidate?

He laughs. “It’s very clear that the Scottish Labour establishment has a preferred candidate,” he says. “And that preferred candidate isn’t me.

“But I am determined to win this contest, and to work with the Scottish Labour establishment to return a Labour government.”

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