Anas Sarwar is in a rueful mood. “I remember giving a speech in the House of Commons in 2012 when I was an MP, saying I believed there was a chance my children could grow up in a post-racial, post-identity world,” he says. Ten years on, the Scottish Labour leader considers developments at a global, UK and Scottish level and sighs. “How naive that seems now.”
The first anniversary of Sarwar taking what must be among the toughest jobs in politics — not made any easier by Covid-19, populist moments and, now, war in Ukraine — has just passed. He became leader in late February last year, shortly before the Holyrood election, with Scottish Labour a humiliatingly diminished force and with little sign of improvement. Indeed, he was genuinely worried the party was heading for a wipeout at the polls. “I knew things were bad but hadn’t realised quite how far we had fallen until I took over — how hollowed out we were as a party and as an organisation,” he tells me. “We were haemorrhaging support and credibility on a near daily basis.”
Sarwar, 38, energetic, charismatic and likeable, had a good election campaign and, as he puts it, “managed to stop Armageddon”. Scottish Labour fell from 24 seats in 2016 to 22 in 2021, still in third place behind the Tories but, crucially, still alive. There has followed 12 months of “bloody hard work” knocking the party organisation into shape, establishing a credible fundraising operation and developing modern technological savvy.
One result is that Scottish Labour gathers in Glasgow this weekend for its annual conference with a new impetus and, intriguingly, a new logo. Out has gone Peter Mandelson’s long-serving red rose and in has come a stylised thistle, a change of flora intended to emphasise the party’s Scottish credentials and its ease with modernity. It is, says Sarwar, aimed at two audiences: the voting public, who have come to view the SNP as Scotland’s natural governing party, and the Scottish Labour Party itself. “I’m not suggesting a change of logo changes any vote,” he says. “It doesn’t. But it demonstrates that we are modern and fresh, an autonomous, future-looking party that is firmly on the side of Scotland. And it says to the party that we want to change the culture and the mindset. We have to believe we can win again. My message to the party is: get out of your comfort zone, stop talking only to people who agree with you and get out into the country. There must be no more talking about the past or talking to ourselves about dogmatic old ideas. We’re about the future.”
One of Scottish Labour’s problems has been its inability to deploy the kind of technological campaigning methods that would support this sentiment, and that have long been second nature for most other political outfits. This was partly a financial issue — Sarwar says the party raised just £250 in the final year of his Corbynite predecessor Richard Leonard’s leadership, compared with almost £1m in the past 12 months. He has spent money and time rectifying the lack of online nous. “We didn’t have a digital operation worth the name,” he says. “We have been getting advice from people who worked on the Biden campaign, and from New Zealand and Canada. Finally, after 22 years of the 21st century, we have got the Scottish Labour Party into the 21st century.”
The famously switched-on SNP were, he admits, “probably there 22 years ago”. Labour’s new expertise will be tested out in the run-up to the Scottish local government elections in May across platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. This will also be the first real electoral measurement of whether progress has been made under Sarwar. The single transferable vote system used in council elections in Scotland makes it harder for parties to win control of authorities outright, but there is a strong focus on Glasgow, Scotland’s largest council, which was once Labour’s heartland but which has been run by the SNP since 2017.
Asked whether he might win the city back, Sarwar, a Glasgow MSP, criticises the SNP’s administration of the city but doesn’t sound overly confident of his chances. “Anyone who lives in Glasgow knows the SNP aren’t getting the basics right, and don’t understand economic policy or Brand Glasgow. Glasgow City Council should not be a branch office of the Scottish government. It is and should be one of the greatest cities in the world. We want to maximise the number of Labour councils and councillors, and we have to have the ambition to win in Glasgow, but we recognise that will take significant movement.”
On policy, Sarwar is following Keir Starmer’s example and driving the Scottish party back towards the centre. He believes the nation is ill-served by the quality of its economic debate, and wants to emphasise Labour’s differences on the issue from the SNP and its anti-growth coalition partners, the Scottish Greens. “People accept Labour care about social issues such as the NHS, the welfare system and the quality of education,” he says. “But all of these things need to be backed up by a strong economy with successful businesses, with people in good jobs, making profits and paying taxes. We are an unashamedly pro-business, pro-growth party.”
He knows that the recent improvement in Labour’s performance at Westminster, where it has been substantially ahead in the polls, is an opportunity for the Scottish party to get back on track. The relationship is symbiotic, with both north and south reliant on the other to enhance its successes. “I want Keir Starmer to be prime minister and that means Scottish Labour has to be better so we are not a drag on the UK party,” says Sarwar. “That also means UK Labour has to be better so people in Scotland believe Labour can win at Westminster. One of the biggest barriers for us in Scotland has been the idea that it can’t.” It has long been an article of faith in Labour circles that the prospect of a Labour government in London might prise centre-left voters back from the nationalists, and that it remains very difficult for Labour to regain Downing Street without recovery in Scotland.
Sarwar has detected a change in the public mood towards the SNP, though he accepts Labour has work to do if it is to benefit from any cooling off. “There’s not the enthusiasm for the SNP there has been in previous years. We’ve managed to remove the toxicity there had been around the Labour brand [during the Corbyn years]. I think we have a likeability and a credibility now, and the biggest challenge in electoral terms is connecting with people on an emotional level and turning that likeability and credibility into actual votes.”
May’s elections will reveal whether voters have begun to listen or whether Scottish Labour remains in the doldrums. A year after Sarwar first grasped the thistle, he is about to feel the burn.