“I want to keep the radicalism of the previous leadership,” Anas Sarwar tells me. He is the frontrunner in the Scottish Labour leadership race to succeed Richard Leonard, whose tenure started during the Corbyn era and ended not long after its demise. Sarwar is regarded as the ‘centrist’, ‘moderate’ or ‘Labour right’ candidate in this contest (he confirms in our interview that he has “no hesitation in being described as a Brownite” and is “perfectly comfortable with that tag”). In a clear manifestation of the party’s factional shift over the last few years, he was beaten by Leonard in 2017 but now hopes to triumph, having secured the largest number of affiliate, councillor, local party and parliamentary nominations in the contest. The legacy of the last leadership has not been forgotten, however.
“I actually think our tax policies will be even more progressive and radical than even John McDonnell’s or Jeremy Corbyn’s tax policies or manifesto,” Sarwar says. He has unveiled a new policy this week: a 5% tax rise for those earning over £150,000 a year and 2% for more than £100,000. “Because we have specific challenges in Scotland. I want us to commit hundreds of millions of pounds to tackle child poverty in Scotland, but you have to pay for it. And I think it’s only fair that we pay for it by asking those at the top to pay a bit more. So I think the top 2% can afford to pay more.”
While the Glasgow MSP is seen as more closely aligned to the new UK leadership than his Labour left rival Monica Lennon, he is keen to emphasise that his own leadership would be distinct. “I like Keir Starmer, I respect Keir Starmer, I will work with Keir Starmer, I want him to be the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But be in no doubt that if I think he’s getting it wrong, I won’t be afraid to say so,” he says. The context to this statement is the persistent worries in the party that Scottish Labour is viewed as a mere “branch office” of UK Labour, in the departing words of former Scottish leader Johann Lamont. Sarwar describes this accusation as “not helpful to us”, though he believes the bigger problem has been Labour “not being on the pitch”.
And there is clearly a big problem. Holyrood elections are set to take place in May and a terrible result for Scottish Labour is predicted, despite the SNP administration’s mistakes during the pandemic, from the care homes crisis to a slow vaccine rollout. When I suggest that these fatal errors combined with deep and increasingly public SNP divisions mean this may be a good moment to take over as an opposition party leader, Sarwar points out that “people are predicting impending doom” in the parliamentary contests. There are signs that Labour under his leadership would highlight the internal warfare of the governing party, however, as Sarwar says Nicola Sturgeon is pursuing a fresh independence referendum despite coronavirus “to keep her party together, and to heal the wounds in her own party rather than heal the wounds in the country”.
To exploit the SNP splits, Scottish Labour must first address its own, of course. Asked how he plans to reduce party infighting, Sarwar says “to lead with humility and honesty” is key and “we’ve got to improve the lines of communication between our MSPs – they’re only a group of 23 people, but our communication hasn’t been anywhere near as good enough as it should be for any functioning organisation”. He adds that, small as the group is, “we don’t have the luxury of shutting anyone out” and pledges: “If I am successful, I want all the talents to be part of that, and I don’t care which part of the party they come from. I’ve already said I would want Monica [Lennon] to be a big part of that, I’d want Richard [Leonard] to be a big part of that.”
Sarwar characterises his last leadership bid as a “painful experience”. He reported at the time that members had said they could not support his campaign on account of him being a Muslim and his wife wearing a hijab. His complaint against a councillor was dismissed by Labour: the accused said the allegations were false; Sarwar said the investigation process was deeply flawed. Now, both he and Lennon agree that the disciplinary process for Scottish members should be a devolved matter. Commenting on internal party culture generally, Sarwar says “it sometimes feels like that the Scottish Labour Party is playing The Hunger Games” (a dystopia in which children are forced to fight to the death); on standing for the leadership this time, he adds: “I probably thought two, three, four, five, six times about whether it was the right thing to do.”
Sarwar is Scottish Labour’s constitution spokesperson, and his political hero Gordon Brown is heading up Starmer’s constitutional commission. The Scottish candidate tells me that he has spoken to Brown both before and after the review was announced in December, “and in recent days, too”. The Scottish candidate is supportive of the work, emphasising that “independence is not the endpoint of devolution” and “neither is devolution the status quo”. But he does have a warning: “we’ve got to be careful that it doesn’t look like we are advocating greater devolution as some kind of political fix because we’re worried about a referendum or wider independence”.
Questions over the constitution offer a central dividing line in the leadership race: Lennon does not support independence but believes a referendum should be granted if a mandate is won for it; Sarwar believes another vote is not credible while the country goes through and recovers from Covid (a position Starmer now shares). Sarwar says the other two main parties in Scotland maintain “hardcore positions”, with the Tories representing “army tank-driving Union Jack-waving chest-beating unionism” and the SNP “flag-waving ‘independence now’ nationalism”. And yet, he insists, “I honestly don’t think that everyone that in the last election voted SNP as a nationalist, and I don’t think everyone that voted for the Tories at the last election is a conservative”.
Combined with a focus on the NHS (he says “we have never run an election campaign on the NHS in Scotland”), the leadership candidate reckons “there is a space for an answer to another question” and Scottish Labour will appeal as “the grown-ups in the room”. This sounds a lot like Starmer last year. Under his leadership, UK Labour has made great strides in the polls, yet struggles to get a consistent lead over the Tories, led by the least grown-up politician in the country. Could the strategy work better for Sarwar? It seems crucial to his plan that promises around party unity are delivered. Scottish Labour, after all, cannot be the grown-ups if it continues to play The Hunger Games.
LabourList has also interviewed leadership candidate Monica Lennon.