Anas Sarwar: 'I want us to do as well as we can do, but looking at the polls, we’re talking about the survival of the Labour party'
If there was any doubt over the size of the task facing the next Scottish Labour leader, it was ably demonstrated in a single tweet.
When Richard Leonard announced his surprise decision to step down with immediate effect last month, he received warm words from his erstwhile rival and the man who hopes to become his successor, Anas Sarwar.
However, it was a message posted by another Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, which illustrated the lingering division within the party at Holyrood.
Responding to Sarwar’s message of thanks to Leonard, Findlay tweeted: “Oh spare us please”.
Findlay, a figure from the party’s left who is backing Sarwar’s rival Monica Lennon as the next leader, is stepping down at May’s election.
Nevertheless, his withering response to Sarwar on social media illustrates the job the next leader has to restore unity ahead of an election where coming second would be seen as a major achievement.
Sarwar, 37, was decisively beaten by Leonard in 2017 when they competed against each other for the leadership role left vacant by Kezia Dugdale and he has been forced to watch from the sidelines as his conqueror struggled to make his mark at Holyrood.
Should he win this month’s leadership contest, he will inherit a party in which, according to Findlay, there is a “culture of anonymous briefings and leaks”.
And he will have just over two months to arrest his party’s decline before a Holyrood election which looks set to give the SNP a mandate for a second referendum on independence.
A former dentist whose father Mohammad was a Glasgow MP – the UK’s first Muslim MP – and is now governor of Punjab, Sarwar says he wants to help heal a country which was already reeling from the constitutional dogfights of the independence referendum and Brexit even before the ravages of the pandemic hit.
He knows only too well the dreadful toll COVID has taken, not just from the overwhelming amount of correspondence from constituents but also the deaths of those close to him, including a friend who had a young family.
Sarwar says he urged him to go into hospital even though his friend feared he would never get home again.
“I was talking to him the night before he went into hospital,” Sarwar says. “It’s quite heart-breaking because I do recall him saying he didn’t want to go in and I was trying to persuade him because his oxygen levels were really low.
“He said that if he went into hospital he wouldn’t come back home again, and that’s a really tough thing to hear. Sadly, he was right – he never did come home again.”
Sarwar knows there are thousands of families across the country with a similar story to tell, loss on a hitherto unimaginable scale which will take years to come to terms with.
He wants the next session at Holyrood to be a “COVID parliament” where a political consensus is forged to tackle the economic, social and health implications of the pandemic.
But whether he likes it or not, Sarwar must know that the future of the Union and the prospect of a second independence referendum is likely to dominate.
Monica Lennon, his leadership rival, has said Scottish Labour should not block indyref2, but instead seek to have an option for further devolution, so-called “devo max”, added to the ballot.
Sarwar doesn’t agree.
“I would caution Scottish Labour from thinking there is a quick fix,” he says. “That we change position on one policy [the referendum] and that somehow means the resurrection of the Scottish Labour party and there’s no consequences as a result.
“I would much rather be a political leader that is saying what they truly believe and being honest with the public and trying to win an argument about what is best for our country right now. I don’t believe in some kind of wheeze that is going to try and get people back.”
But he also knows that the road back to power is a long one, setting his sights on victory not in 2021, but 2026.
“This a long-term project that is going to require new ideas, new people and a new vision for Scotland that is focused on Scotland’s future, not Scotland’s past.
“If you look at the polls of where we are now, we’ve come through our worst European election result in our history, our worst Westminster election result in Scotland in our history and everyone is predicting it’s going to be cataclysmic for us in May.
“I don’t believe that. I think we can run a good campaign in May and show we are an effective, credible opposition and that we can use that platform to build.”
Asked if coming second would be a good result in May, he says: “I’m ambitious. I want us to do as well as we can do, but looking at the polls just now, we’re talking about the survival of the Labour party. If we can build from where we are now to be in the position that you suggest, then I think that’s good progress but only one step in the direction I want us to go.”
None of it says much for Leonard who inherited a party on the slide and failed to make an impact.
But Sarwar says his former rival does leave a positive legacy, notably in strengthening trade union links, developing an industrial strategy and highlighting failures of mental health provision.
“Richard is someone that I’m proud to call a friend. He is Labour to his core and I believe he has a big future to play in Labour politics at Holyrood and beyond. I’m very clear that if I am successful, I want Richard to be part of the team and for him to be a significant part of what happens next.”
Sarwar once referred to himself as a “Brownite” as he attempted to stave off attacks accusing him of being a neo-liberal follower of Tony Blair.
But a lot has happened since Labour were last in power at Westminster and Holyrood.
“The world has changed – we are not in the Scotland of 1997,” he says. “I would argue we’re in a different world and a different Scotland from even 2017…we need to change our politics, we need a new radicalism around our economic policy, a new radicalism around our social policy.
“We have so much division in our society, we are so unkind to each other across the board. Where is the politics of empathy, of hope, of unity? You don’t see much of that in Scotland. If the Labour party is not going to deliver that, then I don’t know who else is.”