Interview: Can Anas Sarwar be the champion of the working class?
Exclusive interview with the Scottish Labour leadership contender on Brexit, socialism and the real living wage
Anas Sarwar - image credit: David Anderson
Anas Sarwar wafts into Holyrood headquarters with trepidation to outline his pitch to be Scottish Labour leader.
“You’re not going to say I smell expensive again,” he says, harking back to a remark in his first interview from the grand halls of Westminster in 2012 where his wealth and private education were rather unremarkable.
His riches are headline news now that he is a not-so-humble MSP, so perhaps Holyrood should have gone one better by gluing in a GQ-style aftershave sachet, to give readers their own immersive experience of Eau D’Anas, but you’ll have to settle for admiring his shirt and tie in the photos – surely supplied by some esteemed Savile Row tailor?
“Don’t answer that, he’s fishing,” grins communications director Alan Roden, the former political editor of the sartorially obsessed Daily Mail who has yet to issue a press release on Richard Leonard’s legs.
“I get my suits in Marks and Spencer,” Sarwar insists, checking the label just to make sure.
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Five years on from his Holyrood debut, Sarwar still smells a bit too expensive for some hard-left Labour members who are willing to overlook opponent Richard Leonard’s own private education to admire his years at the forefront of the trade union movement and long-term devotion to Jeremy Corbyn.
While Leonard is most often described as ‘left wing’, one of the most common things you will read about Sarwar is that he is ‘ambitious’.
But few ask what drives this ambition. As the son of the first Scottish Muslim MP, Mohammad Sarwar, Anas was determined he would not be the last, and it takes a man of ambition to fight on in the face of racism, islamophobia, and death threats.
He is undoubtedly wealthy, but few reflect on how his family acquired its wealth. His grandfather fled Indian partition, and his father turned a cut-price egg store into a lucrative wholesaler with a £200m turnover while representing his community at Westminster. How many other Scots would have the work ethic to do the same?
Now Sarwar is within touching distance of leading the party of the workers, he is under pressure to demonstrate that he will share his experience and redistribute the wealth he inherited from his forebears for the benefit of the Scottish community.
He is big on the broad-brush messages, but like many politicians, he is open to accusations of preaching what he does not practise.
He wants the government to “impose” the real living wage – but he cannot persuade his own family to pay more than £8.45 per hour any time soon.
He wants private schools to pay full business rates – but would not say whether he would be happy to pay up if his kids come home from Hutchesons’ Grammar with a bigger bill.
He insists the independence referendum was “the most heated and abuse-filled campaign ever” – a year after the Brexit campaign that vilified migrants and arguably cost one Labour MP her life.
And he rejects the division “between the privileged few and the rest” – while standing on a manifesto entitled For the many, not the few.
So the big question for Anas Sarwar is: can an ambitious, privately educated millionaire really be the champion of the downtrodden working classes?
“The idea that this is some kind of push towards personal ambition is just, frankly, nonsense,” insists Sarwar.
“This has been a horrible job for the last six years. Scottish politics is not an easy place to be in right now. It’s been angry, divisive, abusive and my family has suffered as a result of that, whether it has been death threats, abuse, anger.
“The only thing that I am ambitious about is returning the Labour Party to government.”
Sarwar rejects the notion that he is a continuation of the Blair/Brown lineage, with the support of most of the sitting MSPs who cut their teeth in Scotland’s first Labour administration, in contrast to Leonard, who is seen as part of Corbyn’s new wave.
“I find it hilarious that I’m the ‘continuity candidate’,” he said. “I’m the anti-establishment candidate. The entire Scottish Labour establishment is on one side, they’ve picked their candidate and that candidate is not me.
“I didn’t spend one day of my life as part of the New Labour years. I was 14 when Tony Blair was elected as our Prime Minister, and every day of my time as an elected member has been while Labour has been in opposition.
“I don’t buy this Blairite/Brownite tag. I’m Labour to my core and want Labour to be in government.
“I also don’t buy this argument that there is this UK wave of history that Scotland needs to just jump on. Scotland has got to write its own narrative and its own history, and as the Scottish Labour Party, we have to be, yes, part of the UK Labour family, but we have to keep our distinct identity, and we need to be strong in our autonomy.”
He added: “Somehow there is this portrayal that my family’s background doesn’t fit with either Scottishness or Labour values. In fact, my family tells a great story about both Scotland and the Labour Party.”
Sarwar has now relinquished his shares in United Wholesale and put them in trust for his children, but only after some uncomfortable headlines.
“I am no longer a shareholder in that company, I have never been a director in that company and I have never had any operational control or say in that company,” says Sarwar, in a rebuttal that has become something of a mantra in recent months.
“That company has said, consistently, that it does want to transition all of its employees on to the living wage.
“This is also a company that has supported Labour for decades, and supports the real living wage policy and wants to be able to implement the real living wage faster – and it is able to do that if we have a UK Labour government.”
But if Sarwar cannot persuade his own family to pay the real living wage, how is he going to convince businesses throughout the country to do so?
“I don’t accept the premise of the question,” he insists.
“A real-life question is, how do we make sure that nobody across the country is not getting a fair deal, and how do we recognise that too many people that are in work are in poverty?
“The way we do that is making sure we pay the real living wage, set nationally at a level where nobody is in work and in poverty.”
United Wholesale is no different from many other companies, ostensibly willing to pay the real living wage but apparently unable to do so because of wider business pressures. So what’s stopping them?
“Look, I think it’s best you speak to them about how they make a decision or calculation about how they can impose the real living wage,” he snaps.
“What I would say is, at the moment, we have to accept that in too many situations, the market is dictating what a fair day’s pay is.
“I want the government to dictate what a fair day’s pay is. I don’t want it to be an option – I want it to be for every worker right across the country and no company can have the option.”
Family get-togethers at the Sarwars marred by arguments then?
“You’re probably a son, a nephew, a brother, an uncle to lots of people,” says Sarwar.
“I’m sure that your relatives probably don’t agree with everything you think or believe. I have active debates and discussions with people in my family too, and I am sure every family’s the same.”
Sarwar is also a father, and has fallen into the trap of many politicians by preaching the benefits of universal education while sending his own children to a private school.
“That is a decision my wife and I made, for what we thought was right for our children, and I think the vast majority of people out there will respect the decision,” he said.
“What I would say about our education system is that we have got to be honest and say, after 10 years of the SNP, too many of our schools aren’t good enough.
“We have 4,000 fewer teachers in our schools under the SNP. There are schools having to put adverts on Facebook to try and get people to come and take classes. There are teachers who have to spend their own money to get resources into classrooms. We’ve got a centralisation agenda. We’ve got low morale in the workforce because of the pay cap. You’ve got Teach First trying to bring teachers on stream before they have completed their qualification.
“All of this creates the wrong atmosphere and sends the wrong message about the kind of education we want in Scotland.”
Sarwar also believes private schools should be stripped of their charitable status, which currently allows them to reclaim business rates.
Hutchesons’ had a ‘gross charge’ of over £2.25m between 2012 and the current financial year, but enjoyed a near £1.8m discount, so would Sarwar pay higher fees if Hutchesons decided to pass on the cost of his policy?
“It’s not for me to decide what the fees of the school are,” he said, evasively.
“I don’t believe that private schools should have charitable status, and I also think the rates review that became part of the Barclay review was a very sensible proposal.”
Labour’s left-wing manifesto offers the chance to win back some ground it lost to the nationalists, particularly in its former west coast heartlands that were once known as ‘Red Clydeside’.
Former SNP deputy leader, Jim Sillars, who was once a Labour MP, said Corbyn’s Labour “will pose a major problem for the SNP in terms of left policy” – although he tipped Leonard to lead the charge over Sarwar.
One stream of clear blue water between Sarwar and Leonard is Brexit, after Leonard defied the Dugdale whip and backed Theresa May’s decision to trigger Article 50 in March. It was a blatant sop to Corbyn who whipped his own MPs to back the Brexit starting gun, while Dugdale chose to represent the 62 per cent of Scots that voted against leaving the EU.
Sarwar said he is proud to have voted against triggering Article 50, and believes Westminster should unilaterally vote down Brexit if the Tories come back from Brussels with a bad deal.
“I would hope if that happened, it would trigger an election and we can take over and get a Labour negotiated deal instead,” he said, rejecting the notion that an exasperated European Council might not stand for it and dismissing talk of a second Brexit referendum.
“People are scunnered with referendums,” he said. “Trying to persuade people that this is the time for another referendum on anything is going to be a very hard sell.”
Scotland’s Europhile unionists currently face the quandary of finding a democratic way around Brexit without giving the green light to a second independence referendum.
“Under my leadership, Labour will never, ever, support independence or a second independence referendum,” says Sarwar.
“I don’t want turbo-charged austerity, I don’t want to multiply the impact of Brexit, and I don’t want our politics to be consumed by the constitution.
“I am opposed to the politics of ‘us versus them’ in all its forms. I’m sick and tired of politics that is based on flags or nationalism, or a politics that is driven by dividing people between the privileged few and the rest, or a divide between whether you are from mainland EU or whether you are from Britain.
“I stood side-by-side with Labour Party members the length and breadth of Scotland during the most heated and abuse-filled campaign ever – which is the independence referendum in 2014,” he says, with a touch of Trumpish hyperbole.
Unfortunately for Labour, it is currently locked in another battle of ‘us versus them’ and some high-profile figures have already picked sides.
Interim leader Alex Rowley, who has made no secret of his admiration for Leonard, was accused of “knifing” Sarwar by handing Nicola Sturgeon an easy dig with his attack on “the millionaires, not the millions”.
“He said it wasn’t a set-up and I take him at his word,” says Sarwar.
“If Nicola Sturgeon wants to make First Minister’s Questions about me already, I’m fine about that. My opponent is not within the Labour Party – it is Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May.”
Even his former boss, Kezia Dugdale, had a dig by describing Sarwar as “capable” but lacking “any new ideas”, admittedly lashing Leonard with the same tail, but without the sting, as she was already out of favour with the Corbynistas.
“Kez is a friend of mine, and someone I was proud to serve under,” he said.
“Since that piece we have announced the most radical and bold policy around using the welfare powers in Scotland by creating a Scottish child tax credit that will lift 50,000 children out of poverty, and reverse the cuts to ESA.
“We have announced a Scotland guarantee of a job, training place or apprenticeship for every school leaver.
“I have announced my position on Brexit, that I think we should retain permanent membership of the single market and the customs union.
“We will be talking more about how we get to grips with the housing crisis.”
He added: “My hope is after we have come through this contest we can genuinely come together as a family and focus on the real opponents – the SNP and the Tories, as well as inequality, injustice and unfairness.”
Sarwar recognises that Labour currently has a problem with equality.
“After this leadership contest, the eight most senior positions in the leadership across the UK will be occupied by men,” he said.
“I don’t think that is credible, so I will seek to change the rules in terms of our leadership in Scotland so that we have at least – and I want to emphasise ‘at least’ – one woman in our leadership team in Scotland.”
Sarwar insists he has “no idea” why no female MSPs fancied a shot at being First Minister, but believes he is the man for the job.
A common refrain during the independence referendum was “I didn’t leave Labour, Labour left me”, originally coined by Clydesider Jimmy Reid but more recently attributed to Cartsider Mhairi Black.
“Mhairi Black was never Labour – who are we kidding on?” says Sarwar.
“We’re not going to win back the hardcore nationalists, but we have got the opportunity now – with Indyref2 parked, if not off the table altogether – to say to the people that voted Yes in 2014 that aren’t nationalists, that there is faster, better, bolder and safer change on offer with a radical Labour government with Jeremy Corbyn as our Prime Minister.”
With so much devolution in Scotland, and within the Labour Party itself, could we ever see another Scottish Labour PM?
“Absolutely, I don’t see why not,” says Sarwar.
Really? A Scottish PM setting health and education policy for the whole of the UK, even though it wouldn’t apply in his or her own constituency?
“That’s probably a question to ask the Scot who one day seeks to be Prime Minister,” says Sarwar.
“I’m not sure that’s a question for me,” he adds, as Roden shuffles, awaiting the inevitable question. Does ambitious Anas Sarwar fancy a shot at PM one day?
“No, my only ambition is to get Labour back into a place where it can win an election in Scotland and we can have a Labour First Minister. That is the limit of my ambition – and that ambition is for Scotland and the Labour Party.”
In his speech to the Scottish Labour conference in Dundee, Richard Leonard said he did not denounce dissent
Scottish Labour heads to its party conference in Dundee with a fight to be recognised
Writing to the Scottish Labour leader, Dugdale questioned the party’s support for Brexit