On the campaign trail with Anas Sarwar: “Glasgow is the centre of the universe”

© Sienna Rodgers

“Our activists are the most positive and enthused I’ve seen them in a long time,” Anas Sarwar says. “I think the reaction we’re getting from people as well – there’s a different mood towards the Labour Party than there has been for a very long time.” I talk to the Scottish Labour leader as he campaigns in his own constituency, Glasgow Southside, where he is challenging First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the Holyrood elections. “We’re definitely the most energetic campaign. We’re also enjoying the campaign the most,” he tells me. Labour activists in Glasgow are buoyant: the party has “obviously got a mountain to climb”, as Sarwar puts it, but the grassroots are delighted with how the short campaign has gone.

While the SNP is very unlikely to be beaten at constituency level here, to put it mildly, it is expected that Sarwar will hold onto his Scottish parliament seat via the Glasgow regional list. (He is second on Labour’s list of candidates, and the party currently has four MSPs representing the Glasgow region.) Fighting in Southside is widely considered a very clever move for the Scottish Labour leader: nobody reasonably expects him to win it, and the contest between the two leaders draws attention to unresolved issues in Sturgeon’s own backyard.

“It might be Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency, but it’s my home,” Sarwar says. “I don’t want to do what other political leaders do, which is get parachuted into seats elsewhere that they don’t have a connection with.” He lists the “huge challenges” in this part of Glasgow: housing, youth unemployment, crime and anti-social behaviour, gangmasters, poverty. “There are also amazing, amazing things about Glasgow Southside. It’s the most diverse constituency anywhere in the country. And we celebrate – largely celebrate – difference… It’s a great place to bring up my kids. And Glasgow is the centre of the universe as far as I’m concerned.”

From what I’ve seen, Sarwar – who was elected as leader just nine weeks ago – is going down incredibly well on the doorstep. The people of Glasgow know who he is and they like him, which is reflected in the polls. When I tell Sarwar that many activists believe his 2017 leadership defeat “made” him, the leader replies: “I would completely agree with that.” But party members have also told me they are worried Keir Starmer does not seem to be enjoying such a warm reception. The impression that he is too soft on Boris Johnson reinforces the idea that Sturgeon is the strongest critic of the unpopular Prime Minister. What does Sarwar think?

First, the Scottish Labour leader points out that “Boris Johnson is not standing in this election” and “the Tories and the SNP would love it to be seen as a fight between the two of them… when in actual fact, the Tories are a gift for the SNP”. Next, Sarwar comes to the defence of Starmer. “Where I have a slight advantage is, I’ve gone straight from a leadership election into an election, where there is that much more attention,” the MSP says. “[Keir] has been leader for over a year and he’s not been able to have a single public event yet, not been able to shake a single hand yet.”

As we walk around Toryglen in Glasgow Southside on a Sunday afternoon, Sarwar knocks on doors and talks to voters. He compliments one man on his “impressive pyjama bottoms”. Another resident tells Sarwar he better be quick because “I’m having my dinner”. More seriously, the party leader speaks at length with a wavering SNP voter who failed to get a reply from their MSP Nicola Sturgeon about the exams fiasco from last year. This is still coming up regularly on the doorstep. Also prevalent are issues around mental illness. One voter tells Sarwar that three of her daughter’s friends have taken their own lives in the last year. “That’s scary,” the leader remarks. “Mental health is coming up more and more.”

Drugs-related deaths are another big topic in Scotland, where Labour adopted decriminalisation as its policy last year. Activists in recent days have been concerned that the party may have backed away from the commitment, after Starmer said the Tory approach is “roughly right” and the word ‘decriminalisation’ then failed to appear in the Scottish Labour manifesto (which the party says is not a manifesto but a national recovery plan). Sarwar suggests there has been no rowing back.

“I’m not saying let’s not change the drug laws. But let’s also look at the things we’re getting wrong in terms of services,” he explains. Scottish Labour wants to reverse cuts to local government and drug rehabilitation centres, and wants more beds and alternative therapies. It supports the use of safe consumption rooms. “We have a consistent position on it as, you know: let’s devolve laws, let’s look at the laws, but also let’s make sure we’re reversing the cuts, and seeing this as a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue, and get the Lord Advocate to treat these cases differently.”

That the SNP will be the largest party in Holyrood is a given ahead of the May 6th elections. The questions are whether Sturgeon will win a majority and whether Labour or the Tories will take second place. “I would love to say that we’re gonna have a Labour First Minister coming out of this election, but I’m not sure I’m quite Superman, able to do that over a ten-week period,” Sarwar says. “But I would love us to win as many votes and seats as possible. If we can stop the SNP from getting a majority on the way, and if we can come close or even take second, that would obviously be amazing. But it’s up to the good people of Scotland to decide, we’ve still got to try and persuade them.”

What does he think of Douglas Ross’ performances in debates? “I think they probably speak for themselves.” Sarwar has accused the Tories and the SNP of swapping accusations about whose scandals are worse. “If the measure of success for Scotland is just being a wee bit better than Boris Johnson’s Tories, then it’s not much of a measure, is it?” he points out. But Sarwar has put a bet on Scots agreeing that this is a pandemic election, not one in which the constitution should dominate. As he puts it: “That’s probably the big divide: is it going to be a referendum constitutional election framed by the SNP and the Tories, or is it going to be a national recovery election? I want to do a national recovery election, because fundamentally, that’s what’s going to change people’s lives.”

Coming to Glasgow after a trip to Hartlepool, it strikes me that the two places – both fundamental to Starmer’s electoral mission for the UK Labour Party – are worlds apart in important ways. Their attitudes to Boris Johnson, for example, could not be any more different. I ask Sarwar, is it even possible for Labour to win both? “Yes,” he replies confidently. “We win it with honesty. We win it with authenticity. And we win it not by finding our own version of an us versus them. We want to win it with the politics of hope, and the politics of unity, and with empathy. And that’s, I think that’s a lesson for us. That’s not going to be easy in the short term. But long term, that’s how we do it.”

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