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Anas Sarwar: I have learned to embrace a vulnerability and not be afraid to show it

Anas Sarwar photographed for Holyrood by Anna Moffat

Anas Sarwar: I have learned to embrace a vulnerability and not be afraid to show it

And while a reversal of fortunes for the party that for decades dominated Scottish politics at every level, before being bulldozed by the SNP and then overtaken by the Tories, may still feel like a steep mountain to climb, Sarwar is nothing if not an optimist.

In a fortnight, he will have led his party for two years following the abrupt resignation in February 2021 of the then leader, Richard Leonard – the left-winger who Sarwar stood against for the top role in 2017 and lost out to. 

Second time around, Sarwar beat Monica Lennon  to become leader and immediately pledged to bring back unity to a party which has been dogged by internecine warfare for years, under a whole series of leaders – he is the tenth since 1999 – which was only symptomatic of the frictions within. 

The 2021 Scottish Parliament election campaign started just a month after he won the leadership contest and right slap-bang in the middle of the Covid pandemic. 

Sarwar was the third Labour leader since the previous election in 2016, when Kezia Dugdale was in the role, and, given his brief time in post, he could hardly be blamed for the party delivering its worst-ever result in the history of devolution. Not only did Labour drop two seats to end up with 22 MSPs, it also recorded its lowest share of the vote in both constituency and list for either Westminster or Holyrood since 1910 and was ignominiously pushed into being the third party at Holyrood, a parliament it once dominated and led, sitting behind the Scottish Conservatives.

In his leadership acceptance speech, Sarwar said he would work hard to win back the loyalty of voters. “I want to say directly to the people of Scotland, I know Labour has a lot of work to do to win back your trust. Because if we’re brutally honest, you haven’t had the Scottish Labour party you deserve,” he said.

And that hard work appeared to have had some success when last year’s council election results saw the party back in second place in Scottish politics. He said at the time that being in second place was not the limit of his ambitions for the party.

And now with the UK party led by Keir Starmer topping opinion polls and with commentators predicting a Labour government at the next general election – which could be as early as next year – as a fait accompli, Sarwar is also regularly being talked up as a potential first minister. Even he is starting to believe it could happen.

“Honestly, Mandy, 20 months ago when I took on this job, people looked at me and were very kind, but they looked at me as if, you know, they felt for me. It was with that look of ‘well, good luck, it’s not going to be easy, I feel for you, but someone’s got to do it’. And then fast forward to the council elections and people felt really energised, happy that we got ourselves back into second place, and I made it clear, you know, within five minutes of us being confirmed in second place, that this is great, but I don’t aspire for second place, I aspire for first place. 

“And you know, people thought then that I was a little bit biased, and I would say that, but I meant it when I said I thought that we can get a Labour victory. I still believe that and now coming into this year, the framing has changed, people want to talk to us, business wants to engage, people believe we can win. More than that, people want us to win. I genuinely believe people across the country want us to win. But we’ve got to be worthy of that support. And that’s the project and that’s the plan. This is the next phase of the plan, helping to elect a UK Labour government, but for me the eyes are firmly on the prize of the 2026 Scottish Parliament election.” 

Labour has not been in power in Scotland for 16 years and I personally last interviewed Sarwar for Holyrood magazine almost 11 years ago, when he was still an MP and had just been elected deputy leader of the Scottish party. He was then, he tells me, “a baby who has now grown up”. And it is true a lot of water has passed under the bridge during those intervening years. Not least, him losing his Westminster seat in 2015, becoming an MSP in 2016, and then losing the party leadership contest in 2017. 

Ironically, it is in electoral failure that he has been afforded the confidence to be an improved politician. To allow the veneer of confidence born, in part, from a life of real privilege in terms of wealth, education, political entitlement, and no small thanks to being the youngest son, the ‘wee prince’, of four siblings – three brothers and an older sister – to slip. He’s now a more mature man who is not afraid to show his vulnerabilities and there is an empathy about him that perhaps wasn’t so apparent back in 2012 when he was the newly elected deputy leader of Scottish Labour and the sitting MP for Glasgow Central, a seat he basically inherited from his father, Mohammed Sarwar, Britain’s first Muslim MP. 

And it is perhaps also true that he has finally stepped out of his father’s larger-than-life shadow, the pinnacle of which was his father being introduced to a delegation of MPs to Pakistan as being “Anas’s father”. He is also now the father of three older and more politically aware sons – Adam, 14, Ahmed, 12, and six-year-old Aliyan – which brings a different perspective.

He says that the defeat in the 2015 general election when the SNP took 56 of the 59 Westminster seats available, leaving just one seat each for Labour, the Tories, and the Liberal Democrats, taught him humility. And it is true that with just a month to go before he reaches the milestone-birthday of 40, he has lost that youthful cockiness that could sometimes be interpreted as an air of superficiality. The Sarwar of today is an altogether more serious, and more human, politician, if still a bit of a people pleaser. 

“I actually remember when you interviewed me 11 years ago and thinking back, I do genuinely think I was a baby then,” he says. “And I think when you are a young person coming into politics – I was selected when I was 24 or 25, elected when I was 27 – you’ve got a youthful nervousness, as well as a youthful exuberance, and you look back on it and cringe a little bit. 

“So, the two hardest personal moments in politics for me were obviously my two defeats: my defeat in the general election in 2015 and my defeat in the party leadership election in 2017. But looking back, despite both of those things being the two most difficult moments political career-wise, I generally look back and think they were the two best things that ever happened to me politically, because, one, I lost that stress and pressure that comes with the expectation others have for you, and I think on the personal side, you lose that part of personal ambition.

“And then I think becoming more comfortable in my own skin, more comfortable in my own identity, being more willing to see past your own tribalism, I think is massively liberating. I honestly believe that those two defeats have made me a better person. A better politician. And probably most important of all, I think a better father as well because your priorities shift.

“I don’t pretend I’ve got all the answers to everything. I don’t pretend that my way is always the right way. I don’t pretend that I am the oracle of all opinion and everything. So, I think that’s all important. But also, I think, I have learned to embrace a vulnerability and not be afraid to show it.

“I think politicians have this thing, and I think leaders have this thing in particular, where to show vulnerability is to show weakness, and I feel comfortable enough in my own skin now to be able to express my own vulnerabilities in a way that I think we should be able to because empathy really matters in politics and public life. 

“But I also think when you are someone from an ethnic minority background and it’s always been instilled in you from a very young age that you have got to work ten times harder, you’ve got to be ten times better in order to be seen as equal, I think that ability to now be more comfortable in my own skin and my own identity, is also a really, really important part of that. For a very long time, I really worried about whether people were going to think I’m ‘the Asian MP’, or are they going to think I’m ‘the Muslim MSP’, or do they think I’m just a representative of a certain demographic? Am I going to be seen as an outsider rather than there on my own merits and a representative for everybody? I used to worry a lot about that.

“So, in response to that, you perhaps avoid talking about issues that you otherwise would want to talk about because of the risk that will you get pigeonholed. I think I have been liberated of all those concerns. I am who I am, and those two defeats are a big part of that. But also, I think fatherhood is a big part of that. I think when you become a parent it opens your eyes up to so much and I had much more appreciation for my parents and my grandparents after I became a parent myself.”

Sarwar talks about family a lot. He talks about his sons and his own fathering skills, a need to know that his sons love him and that he is giving them time and attention when they need it. This is unsurprising, given he was born into politics and knows the sacrifices that were made. His father is a veteran of Scottish and Pakistani politics. He was a long-standing Glasgow councillor, an MP for 13 years and the UK’s first elected Muslim to Westminster. Before that he was an active member of the Pakistani People’s Party and has dedicated much of his life to both politics and charitable causes both at home and abroad. He is also a hugely successful businessman and multi-millionaire, and is now living back in Pakistan where he was the governor of Punjab until last year.

Mohammed Sarwar - Britain's first Muslim MP - and wife Parveen in 1999 | Credit: Reuters / Alamy Stock

The elder Sarwar’s decision to leave UK frontline politics followed threats to himself and his family by people associated with the three men convicted of the racist murder of teenager Kriss Donald in Glasgow that the politician had helped get extradited from Pakistan. The men were jailed for life for their part in the kidnap, torture and murder of Donald in 2004.
The levels of abuse suffered by the Sarwar family are horrific, shocking, and having once shied away from openly talking about it, given his earlier misgivings about being pigeonholed as a one-issue politician, he has enthusiastically and candidly helped raise awareness about the levels of Islamophobia in Scotland since he was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2016. It is rooted in very real-life experience.

When Sarwar was 12 and leaving home to go to school, he picked up “a funny looking envelope” that was sitting on the door mat. Inside was a mocked-up picture of his mother tied to a chair, with two guns pointed at her head and in large cut out letters, the words, ‘bang, bang, that’s all it takes’. 

It was a terrifying but seminal moment. It was the point where he truly began to understand the hatred that some felt towards his family because of the colour of their skin and it began what he describes as “a new normal”, a life where he has had to build up a resilience to the prejudice and discrimination his family faced every day. 

He can catalogue a litany of intimidation and abuse that the family have endured. He remembers times as a child when the family car was followed. An occasion when someone catapulted a stone at his father’s head while he was driving through Glasgow. Verbal abuse, threats of violence, bottles being thrown at him, prejudice and racism that just became the everyday fabric of this ‘new normal’. And the building up of a resilience he says that he principally learnt from his mother, Perveen, who he cites as his greatest political inspiration.

“I get my politics from my mum, and I know that sounds strange given my father, but my mum is a very political individual. I remember speaking to an editor of a newspaper at the time my father was in politics and he asked how my mum was and I said she was doing really well and I mentioned about her charity work and the amazing life changing work she was doing around women’s empowerment in Pakistan, and he said to me that he had always thought that’s where my political background comes from. And he was 100 per cent right. The best politician in our family is someone who’s never stood for election, someone who would hate the idea of standing for election. It is my mother. 

“She was the one that felt everything so keenly while my dad was in frontline politics, and she carried the burden of being both mum and dad and from protecting us from so much. But the other thing that really, really drove her was that sense that we’re not going to let the haters win, we’re not going to let those people that want us to walk away have the victory of walking away. We don’t walk away, we stay. We stand up for what is right. And we fight. And we challenge. and we take on the system, and we do it for the right reasons. I think that spirit and strength of my mother really drove me and inspired me in terms of politics.

“And it’s interesting, watching her as a grandmother, because she is amazing with my kids, dare I say, a guardian angel. She spends a lot of time talking to them, nurturing them. And it’s funny because she clearly sees in them what we felt as children when our dad was in politics, because she talks a lot to them about me being in politics and that even though I am very busy, they must never think I don’t care, that I love them, and that they are the centre of my universe. And I’ve not heard her say this, but my son told me she said it, is that if they’re upset with me or frustrated with me, she tells them they should show me love because whatever is going on, I will run towards them. I thought that was interesting, and it made me think that maybe that’s the mistake I made when I was a kid, I didn’t show my dad enough of how I was feeling.”

When I took on this job, people looked at me and were very kind, but they looked at me as if, you know, they felt for me. It was with that look of ‘well, good luck, it’s not going to be easy, I feel for you, but someone’s got to do it’

But surely, I say, that was up to his dad to recognise what was going on in his young son’s life?
“Ah, this is where it gets a bit more difficult and tricky because look, my dad was always really supportive of us, really encouraging, but he is also a big character, and how to say this…he was the centre of his own universe as well as the centre of our family’s and while I remember my dad being really supportive and encouraging, he wasn’t a naturally affectionate dad, he never really said the magic three words, ‘I love you’ and so, I make a point of telling my kids I love them every single day.

“Oh, don’t get me wrong, he 100 per cent loved us, I never doubted that for a moment, he was a very loving, very giving parent, so I’m not for a second suggesting he was too hard or difficult, none of that at all. But I think he’s always been very driven, and my other siblings would tell you this as well, that the best way of engaging my dad in fulsome conversation is when he’s talking about what he expects you to be doing next in terms of that drive, or [he laughs] when you’re talking about him. 

“I know when myself and my siblings were younger, we really craved our dad’s time and craved his attention. That’s not a criticism, it was a reality of the situation at the time when he was aspiring to be Britain’s first Muslim MP and all the stresses and strains and controversies that came with that. I think times have changed and I view my relationship with my dad now less as father and son, and more as friends and he is always there now for guidance, for counsel, for advice – sometimes wanted, and sometimes not wanted [said with a grin].

“My mum saw all of this when we were growing up, she saw all the challenges my dad faced, and the pressures that put on the family, and she never showed weakness in front of us. She protected us from everything. But did we know when she closed that bedroom door at night and when she thought we couldn’t see or hear, that she shed tears? Of course we knew, but she never let it show.”

I ask Sarwar, given all he says about his family and what they endured because of his father’s political convictions, does he believe his own wife, Furheen, sheds similar tears? He pauses and gets emotional before quietly answering, “I know she does...”

Sarwar and I discuss a lot of issues around race, gender, misogyny, equality, and given this is a man who has built his politics around tackling prejudice against minorities, you don’t need to dig very deep to understand why he might be more reticent than others to be more vocal in the current row over sex and gender in the context of the GRR bill when any diversion from either being for or against can, and has, been interpreted as transphobic. And while intellectually

Sarwar understands the concerns that many women, indeed many women very close to him in the party and beyond, have about how the principle of self-identification, which allows for any man to be able to identify as a woman, he has, in the eyes of some, lacked the courage to take a clear lead. 

And while Labour, like every other party, supported the general principle of reform of the Gender Recognition Act, its position remained confused during the passage of the bill. There was an early admission that it was a piece of poor legislation and would be open to legal challenge and having tabled many amendments that were in the main rejected, the party still voted for it, with just two MSPs against.

Sarwar’s apparent silence on the now ill-fated GRR bill has been even more marked by the fact that Starmer has raised concerns about how it could interact with the UK’s equality legislation, which has only given succour to the Tory government’s use of a Section 35 order to block Holyrood’s legislation. 

I ask Sarwar if, given everything that has happened since the bill was passed, including the furore over a double rapist who self-identified as being a woman initially sent to a woman’s prison, now was the time for Labour to do a mea culpa and rethink its position?

“No, because I think it’s right for us to support removing the indignities of obtaining a GRC. What I really regret is, first, the original shape of that bill was not good enough and that didn’t help build a good faith approach to pass the bill and hasn’t helped build a consensus in the wider country. I think the failure to recognise that safeguarding is a huge part of that and, yes, we’ve had the controversy in the last two weeks around rapists and whether they should have access to women’s prisons, and while that is not happening because of the GRR bill, it still feeds into a wider cultural question about whether it’s right for a sex offender, someone who has targeted women, abused women, been found guilty of raping women, should even be thought of as being able to access a women’s prison. 

“And no, of course that individual should not be in a women’s prison and no one who has committed violence against women, or is a threat to women, should be in a woman’s prison. 
“That individual can claim to be whatever they like but as far as I’m concerned, they have lost the right in terms of being able to look for the support they want, and where they access, and where they don’t access.

“What that shows, Mandy, is that I think there is a way that you can remove the indignities of the process of obtaining a GRC whilst also maintaining single sex spaces, and ensuring, or at least minimising, bad faith actors being able to access women’s spaces. And that that requires appropriate guidance. Now, it is really important to stress that we were promised guidance from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, as is their statutory duty, and that the Scottish Government would issue that guidance, and they haven’t yet. 

“But let’s be upfront about this, the GRR bill is the hardest thing I have ever engaged with in the 20 months or so I have been leader, perhaps in my entire time in politics, obviously because of my leadership role and the intensity of how I have had to think about it and my approach to it throughout the entire debate, the entire passing of the bill, and everything that has come afterwards, but believe me, everything I have done has always been rooted in good faith, but right now it feels like everyone has lost.

“I think this has undoubtedly damaged the first minister and I think it’s damaged relations within her own party. I think it’s damaged a perception of all of us in the wider public and I don’t think it had to be that way.  I’m not suggesting because Nicola Sturgeon chose to bring forward a GRR bill that this has damaged her, I think allowing it to become the mess it’s become has damaged her.

“Is that me absolving me and other parties in terms of their fault in all this? Not for a second, but I do think that the Conservative Party is now pretending to be the great champion of women and I just don’t buy it. This is not the party of women. This is the party that brought in austerity that disproportionately impacted on women. This is the party that introduced the rape clause, which is a horrific piece of legislation, within their welfare reforms. I don’t think many of them are acting in good faith. And I would want to see a good-faith approach in this going forward.”

For all he talks about a good-faith approach, you can feel that Sarwar is conflicted, but it is also in trying to please everyone that he has, for some, shown cowardice of leadership. And that could also be damaging to him. Given the influence that his mother has had on his politics, I ask him whether this is an issue they have discussed. He visibly relaxes into that question.

“It’s really interesting, because my mum runs a charity that does women’s empowerment in Pakistan. One arm of the work that she does is around transgender communities in Pakistan, a very stigmatised community in Pakistan. And in Pakistan, she tells me that the issue of identity is less debated than here and there are more transgender specific services available in Pakistan than there are here. 

“So, from my mother’s perspective, because you’re right, she’s been here with me throughout the entire passing of the GRR bill, she’s still here, and she does talk to me often about it, is what she keeps saying, and I think she’s right about this is, okay, if we’re going to have a process of making it easier to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate, we have to have much more robust processes about how you protect single sex spaces based on biological sex, and on that I absolutely agree with her.”  

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