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Can Anas Sarwar save Scottish Labour?

The party’s new leader on his plan for political recovery, why “he’s a proud socialist” and what Nicola Sturgeon got right.

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It would be possible to find Anas Sarwar deeply irritating. He is one of those people who seems to come to success far too easily. At the age of 24, when many of us are taking our first, uneasy steps into adulthood, he was selected at the top of Labour’s Glasgow list and asked to help write the party’s manifesto for the 2007 Scottish parliament election. 

His failure to win a seat – as Labour lost power to the SNP and began its long decline – was but a blip. Sarwar took Glasgow Central in the 2010 general election, succeeding his father Mohammad, who had been the UK’s first Muslim MP. The following year, aged just 28, he was elected as Scottish Labour’s deputy leader. The year after that, he was appointed to lead the party’s campaign in the 2014 independence referendum.

This giddying upward mobility was brought to a sudden halt in 2015, when the SNP routed Labour at Westminster. In the aftermath of losing the referendum, the Nats were catapulted from holding just six of Scotland’s 59 seats to 56. Labour dropped from 41 to an almost unthinkable single constituency. That constituency was not Sarwar’s.

But this too was no real hurdle: the following year he stood again for the Glasgow region at Holyrood and this time was elected. Just over a month ago he achieved what many had long predicted, finally becoming leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

He’s still only 38, the baby among Holyrood’s leaders, and retains a boyish energy and self-deprecating charm – not by accident, one presumes. Likeable, thoughtful and still annoyingly young, he is not above trading on these qualities. His calm and measured performance in the first of the televised leaders’ debates on 30 March won broad plaudits.

 [See also: Will Labour or the Conservatives win the battle for second place in the Scottish election?

“At the closing of the Scottish parliament [ahead of May’s Holyrood election] each leader has a vote of thanks to the presiding officer and recognises those MSPs that are retiring,” he tells me. “I made a special thank you to all those retiring MSPs from the 1999 group and reminded them that they were elected when I was still at school and not old enough to vote. I turned and the First Minister was glaring at me, having been a ’99 herself. I imagine that’s a glare I’m gonna see a lot of over the coming weeks.”

Indeed he will, though it’s debatable how much of a threat Sarwar and Labour pose, as yet, to Nicola Sturgeon. The 2007 loss of Holyrood has been followed by a Buck Rogers-style rudderless spiral through empty space, to the point the party was usurped as the official opposition by Ruth Davidson’s Tories in 2016.

The new Scottish Labour leader is realistic, perhaps even verging on pessimistic, about his immediate chances, especially having taken over so close to May's election. “I am not naive about the scale of the challenge,” he says. “Three days before I became leader we were polling at 14 per cent, and if that was to be replicated on 6 May, it would mean 15 MSPs or less. To demonstrate how stark that is, if you get less than 15 MSPs you lose the right even to ask a question at FMQs every week.

“So that’s how serious the challenge is. The way I see this project – and it is a long-term project – is four phases. Phase one is survival. Phase two is relevance – relevant to the lives of people of Scotland and their future. Phase three is credible opposition and phase four is being a credible alternative government. Now, I rate myself but I don’t rate myself so highly that I think we can do all four of those in the ten weeks that I’ve had since being leader and in the six weeks of this election campaign. But I honestly think, between now and 6 May, we can complete three of the four phases, get our party off its knees and on to the pitch again.”

Sarwar’s election was greeted by many in the Labour movement as if they had finally arrived at an oasis after years wandering the desert. As one senior party figure put it to me, “I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic yet, but I am re-energised.” Sarwar feels “there is a sense that the Labour Party is back again and people can be confident that it has a future”.

A centrist by instinct and calculation, Sarwar is withering about the self-indulgent leftism that has done so much damage to the party’s prospects in recent years. Under his Corbynite predecessor Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour tanked further in the polls, lost its two MEPs and, after achieving the modest recovery of six seats in the 2017 general election, was again reduced to one in 2019.

“For too long it has looked like we’ve been talking to ourselves,” says Sarwar. “We have been fighting among ourselves and using the language of the past, only talking about the achievements of the past and not looking like or sounding like we were talking about Scotland’s future.”

In his early years, Sarwar was a clichéd kind of politician – an identity, forged in the Blair and Brown era, found him sharp-suited, smooth, confident, willing to play the game and work the machine to climb the ladder. It took several brushes with adversity for him to reflect on whether he was heading in the right direction, and if he was happy with himself. He says he has changed, something his closest allies echo.

“This is going to sound perverse,” he says, “but I honestly think that the two best things that ever happened to me in my political career were losing the general election in 2015 and losing the leadership election [he stood against Leonard, and was then fired from the shadow cabinet] in 2017. I can honestly say I feel like I’m a better human being for it. I feel like a better father for it and I feel a better politician for it as well, because the shackles came off for me. There is nothing quite as liberating as being liberated of ambition, and there’s nothing quite as liberating as when you are thrown to the sidelines and put on the back benches. It allowed me to find my own identity and be comfortable in my own skin, to talk about my own experiences.” He produces a wry smile. “So I should probably thank Richard Leonard and Nicola Sturgeon for that.”

As a younger politician he was wary about being a Muslim in the public eye. He didn’t want to be pigeonholed “as the Asian politician or the Muslim politician”, he says. “I was really nervous talking about my race. I was really nervous talking about my religion and I was really nervous talking about my experiences growing up. I was always conscious of wanting to be accepted as a mainstream political figure and not just some kind of tick-box exercise. I think that restricts you in a way, puts you in a straitjacket. I’ve done a lot of self-reflection over the past few years.” Indeed, he has thrown himself into anti-racism campaigning, in particular against the obscene abuse so readily visible on social media.

An example of the new direction in which he’s taking the party – back toward the mainstream – comes early in our conversation. Unprompted, Sarwar begins to talk about the importance of the private sector to Scotland’s post-Covid economic recovery and future. In a nation that is obsessed with its public sector and that often seems to view wealth creation with heavy suspicion, this feels significant. Business leaders have in the past complained about their poor relationship with Sturgeon’s administration.

“If we are going to focus on recovery, if we are going to rebuild our economy and get people back to work, quality work in the economy of the future, then we need to see the private sector and business as a partner in that work, not as an opponent,” Sarwar says. “That’s why, on my second day as leader, I re-established the Labour Business Network and I asked [former Labour MP and trade minister] Brian Wilson to chair it. I want people to understand that, yes, we are the party of workers, and, yes, we want to have well-paid, good work, but we also want to be a party of business again, so we have successful businesses to help grow our economy, to create jobs, and through that help get people out of poverty and create a better society.”

If this sounds more like something Tony Blair would say than Jeremy Corbyn, that is intentional. But still, despite my raised eyebrow, Sarwar insists he identifies as a socialist. “I am a proud socialist, but socialism doesn’t have to be a competition between the private sector and the public sector, or see the voluntary sector as an outsider. Actually socialism can mean we create the right framework for a thriving private sector. As the party of work, the Labour Party doesn’t just care about the people with jobs in the public sector. It means creating jobs and caring about jobs in the voluntary sector and the private sector as well. This is the positive relationship that I want to have.”

[See also: Alex Salmond’s new party Alba makes the Scottish independence movement look like a shambles]

His party’s left wing, already suspicious that its new leader is a dangerous Blairite retread, is unlikely to warm to this message. But for middle Scotland, which in recent years has looked in vain for grown-up, sensible economic policies from Labour, it might be considered a good start.

Part of his process of self-reflection has included consideration of the nature of modern political communication. I’ve heard the same from Sturgeon; that she finds the “rules” about what a politician can and can’t say exhausting. The rise of social media has made it even harder for them to admit “I don’t know”, or to say “I’ll have a think about it”. The tribalism on Twitter and elsewhere has created a political space that is angry, abusive and attritional. Sarwar would like to change that, and this was evident during the otherwise heated leaders’ debate, when he praised Sturgeon’s leadership through the Covid crisis before criticising her policies on child poverty and the NHS.

“I honestly think that we cannot come through Covid and go back to politicians just fighting with each other,” he says. “We have been pulled apart from our families like never before, but actually as a country we’ve come together like never before. That’s why my message in this entire election campaign is going to be relentlessly positive and I’m going to keep doing it with a smile on my face.”

Sarwar has also taken a cautious approach to the scandal surrounding Alex Salmond, leaving the Tories to lead the political charge. He has sympathy for the First Minister. “From a purely human level it can’t be easy, so I have never used it as a way of having a go at any members of the SNP, either in public or in private. This was a very close political relationship probably the closest political relationship we’ve had in Scotland for the last 20 years – and I wouldn’t wish that kind of breakdown and all the consequences of it on anyone. That’s not who I am as a human being.” 

This doesn’t mean avoiding battles with the other parties where they are necessary, and he is fiercely critical of the SNP’s handling of the Salmond complaints, and also the twin obsession shared between the Nats and the Conservatives with the independence debate. “It suits them both to bounce off each other and have the constitution be the main focus of politics in Scotland, to try and create that binary choice across the country,” he says.

Labour, neither comfortably unionist nor nationalist, faces a tricky navigational challenge. “Constitutional politics is not what gets us out of bed in the morning. And what people care about right now sitting at home is not the date of the referendum campaign. What they care about is if and when they’re going to have a job to go back to. They’re worried about their child’s education and mental health. They’re worried about a cancelled operation or the failure to get a cancer diagnosis, and they’re worried about the planet we’re going to leave our children and our grandchildren.”

Sarwar might want to change the record, but the constitution has dominated Holyrood since its founding and, with the SNP on course for a majority and a mandate for a second independence referendum, this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. The next parliament is more likely to be a tug of war between Sturgeon and Boris Johnson over whether Scots can go to the polls again.

Part of Labour’s ongoing problem has been the differences between the leadership in London and in Scotland. Under Corbyn, the prospect of a coalition with the SNP was floated if it would help get Labour into No 10, much to the horror of the party’s MSPs. Those days are over, says Sarwar. “I’ve got a really good relationship with Keir Starmer. I will work with Keir, I will respect him, I want him to be the next prime minister. But when it comes to Scotland, I’m the boss and if I disagree with [Labour in Westminster] I won’t be afraid to tell them and I will always fight Scotland’s corner.” And he’ll do it, clearly, with a smile on his face.

This interview is taken from a Reform Scotland event. It can be viewed in full here.

[See also: Our Scottish election poll tracker

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's Scotland editor.