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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. 

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.

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.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.