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Dividing Lines

Scottish Labour’s new leader, Anas Sarwar, takes on the job just weeks before crucial elections. He talks to Vanesha Singh about the challenges ahead.

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Interview

Scotland’s parliamentary elections will take place this May and it is no secret that, for Scottish Labour to win, its new leader has a mountain to climb. But if Anas Sarwar is at all doubtful that the Labour party will one day mount a red flag atop Ben Nevis, it does not show.

Sarwar will be standing in his home patch of Glasgow Southside. Yet despite having worked 20-hour days for the last two weeks, the MSP for Glasgow feels ‘energetic’ about the election, stirred by his belief that Labour principles are needed ‘now more than ever’. “I feel really enthused by it,” he says, “I think we have a real opportunity to set a positive agenda in Scotland and advocate a politics that I believe in to my very core.”

Sarwar, who defeated Monica Lennon MSP in the leadership election this February, maintains he is not naive about the scale of the challenge. “We are starting from a really difficult place, there’s no point being complacent about that. Three days before the leadership election result, the polls had us on 14 per cent, which would be a decimation for us in Scotland.”

“I’m not one of those leaders that’s coming in and pretending that everything is resolved, that the Labour party
is back again and everything’s changed, and we’re on the verge of a Labour government and a Labour first minister. I’m not going to do that chest-beating, macho leadership that people expect, or what our leaders have done in the past. Instead, I think we’ve got to take the party on a journey, and that journey starts with survival.”

Sarwar recounts speaking to the Labour MPs and peers in Westminster shortly after the leadership election, when
he says he decided to tell them ‘a few home truths’. “We keep hearing about the need to win back the Red Wall if
we’re to have a Labour government across the UK again. The first Red Wall to fall was Scotland. There is no pathway
back to a UK Labour government without a functioning, active Scottish Labour party”.

Sarwar is nonetheless confident in the UK Labour leadership of Keir Starmer, who he believes is serious about winning back Scotland.

Becoming the leader of the Scottish Labour party – and the first Asian and Muslim leader of any major political
party in the UK – would have come as a surprise to a young Anas. “I joined the Labour party when I was 15 and was
active in my local community, but never in a million years at that time would I have ever thought I’d stand for political
office. The idea of standing for politics when I was that age completely repulsed me.”

Anas, son of former Labour MP Mohammad Sarwar, was initially deterred from political office. His father – the UK’s first Muslim MP and now governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province – was elected in 1997, when Anas was 14. “It was really difficult growing up in a political family, particularly in terms of the attention and the heat, it was really negative,” he recalls.

He did, however, enjoy helping his father write speeches. “I remember before he would go to Westminster usually on a Monday night or Monday afternoon even, or when he’d phone if he was going to do a speech the next day. I’d still be finishing off my homework and he’d be like, ‘I’ve got a speech on x topic tomorrow, write me a speech’ and I’d have to sit and research and learn all about it and write a speech for him and then hope he’d use some of it. Usually, he’d butcher half of it and do his own thing. I always argue that my version was better.”

It wasn’t until the boundaries changed, which meant his father was no longer the MP for the area where Anas was
a party member, that his attitude towards Labour softened. “That was a really, really strange moment, because I could
go to party political meetings and CLP meetings and branch meetings and not be the local MP’s son, I could just
be there as myself. That was a real change for me.”

But it was Labour’s decisions to go to war with Iraq, and its ensuing ‘war on terror’, which truly politicised Sarwar
and guaranteed his involvement in the party. “I was an opponent of the Iraq war,” he says. “And I saw people my age that were sympathetic to the Labour party have two reactions. I saw a lot of them run away from the Labour party, and I saw some of the other ones run towards it. And the ones who ran towards it said ‘this doesn’t represent the Labour party that we joined, how do we change it, how do we get it back to what we believe in?’, and I was one of those.”

For Sarwar, it is important to reflect on that time. “You’ve got to remember the atmosphere that was being created, where a large section of young Muslims across the country felt as if they were under attack by the state.”

Yet although Sarwar believes a lot has changed in the last 20 years, the war on terror and Labour’s wider foreign stance on Palestine and Kashmir still leave Muslim members feeling they are not represented by the party. That is according to recent research from the Labour Muslim Network on the Islamophobia in the party’s ranks. “I’ve been to Gaza now twice, I think it was 2013 last time, and the horrific scenes there, of course that shapes you, of course that makes you think about politics in a different way,” says Sarwar.

“The challenge for us as a Labour party is we have a large diaspora community. And I think that there is a natural sensitivity around not wanting to upset individual communities but also not wanting to inflame tensions between communities, when we’re thinking about our response to issues that happen on the other side of the world,” he adds. “That’s why, when it comes to issues like Kashmir or around Palestine, we’ve got to try and take as best we can some of that identity stuff out of it and take it back to principles – the principle of peace, the principles of equality, the principles of human rights. And I think if we have a principles-based approach, it can stop us having any kind of divisions in our communities that we need to try and avoid. I think that’s a lesson we need to learn around our own foreign policy, but also in our domestic agenda as well.”

Domestically then, and in a bid to bring about the unity he talks of, Sarwar has made a national Covid recovery ‘that will work for everyone’ the centrepoint of his Holyrood campaign, with a focus on jobs, the NHS, education, the climate and communities. “I don’t just say this as a framing of the election, I honestly believe that we can’t rely on the Tories to deliver a recovery that works for everyone. It’s not in their DNA,” he says. “Only a functioning, outward-looking, hopeful Labour party can actually respond to the challenge of our time. Boris Johnson ain’t gonna do it. Nicola Sturgeon ain’t gonna do it.”

The Conservatives cannot be trusted with a Covid recovery, says Sarwar, because they have fed into the politics of division and fuelled the inequality in our society. “And the reason why we can’t rely on the SNP is one, their record shows that they talk a good game on equality but they don’t deliver, but also they’re distracted, they have no interest in healing the wounds in our country. All they are relentlessly focused on is having a referendum and having an argument about the constitution.”

“This pandemic is an economic hit even sharper and deeper than the banking crisis, and you’ve got 300,000 of our fellow Scots on furlough that ends at the end of autumn, unsure about their job prospects after that comes to an end,” he says. For Sarwar, then, it would be a ‘sad reflection on our politics’ if we ignored the realities of the pandemic and went back to ‘old arguments’ around Brexit and Scottish independence.

“I want as close a relationship as possible with the European Union without opening up all those big constitutional divides again that put our entire country on pause and paralyse us from delivering the kind of recovery we need across the country,” he adds. “I think it would be contradictory of me to say in Scotland that we shouldn’t focus on the constitution to put recovery first, but then say we should focus on Brexit and not put the recovery first.”

On the issue of independence, the new leader ‘completely agrees’ with the findings from a recent report by FEPS and the Scottish Fabians that Scottish Labour needs to reassert itself as champions of the United Kingdom, Scotland and devolution. Sarwar adds, though, that the status quo around devolution is no longer credible. “The UK doesn’t work for you if you live in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, just like it doesn’t work if you live in Glasgow and Edinburgh.” Instead he would like to see power pushed out of our parliaments and into communities.

Over the course of the campaign, Sarwar will be announcing his plans around his five chosen policy areas, from a fairer examination process for current students, to a focus on tech and green jobs, as well as more support for businesses, greater ambition around the climate emergency, and an NHS catch-up plan to deal with the backlog of postponed treatment. He says these issues – around unemployment, cancelled operations, children’s education and mental health, climate change, and staying safe – are what people across the UK are worrying about right now.

But ‘staying safe’ as a key concern is about much more than just wanting a Covid-19 vaccination. The tragic news of Sarah Everard’s death has awakened a national conversation about both gender-based and state violence. Across the country, including in Glasgow, vigils and marches have taken place – and in London were met with a violent response from the police, sending further shockwaves across the country. “The reaction from the Met was just unforgivable. I mean, the lack of self-awareness of the significance of the moment was really, really upsetting,” Sarwar says. “It is sadly still the case for far too many women that they have to think twice before walking down the street,” he adds.

One problem is that police officers are not adequately trained in dealing with hate crime, he believes. “We should have, on every beat, and every shift, in every police force across Scotland, but I don’t see why it can’t be done across the UK, at least one officer that is a designated expert in how to deal with hate crime, in a way that is sensitive to community demands, but also alive to people’s lived experiences. And I think if we did it that way then we can get policing to work.”

But doesn’t this solution of policing to tackle violence against women miss the mood? After all many on the left,
particularly younger people and the Black Lives Matter movement see police brutality as part of the problem. Whilst Sarwar says Labour needs to ‘listen’ and ‘not be aloof’ to the demands from these movements, he insists that policing is important, and we should not pretend it is not.

Scottish Labour’s new leader clearly believes only a Labour government can overcome the challenges of inequality, hate and prejudice, but says the party cannot preach the message of unity if it is not demonstrating unity itself. For this to happen, Sarwar says the Scottish Labour party ‘needs to stop with the Hunger Games’. “We think that we can spend all day fighting with each other, arguing with each other, eating each other alive until one person’s left.”

As leader, he promises to work across the party, and not get involved in any ‘petty internal fights’. “Whatever wing people might think they’re from, as long as they’ve got something to contribute, I want to work with them to deliver the Labour party that we all need,” he says. This willingness to respect and represent the broad church of Labour is something Sarwar maintains Keir Starmer is already demonstrating, and will be key to giving people a Labour party they can vote for.

“Because, whatever divisions that we think may exist within our own political party, or whatever divisions you think exist between our political parties, they honestly pale into insignificance compared to the divisions that people want to create in our communities. And I honestly think, whilst there’s been a wave of division, a moment is going to come where a wave of optimism and unity is going to be able to beat that division. The challenge is whether we’re going to be ready to turn that tide, and I want to build that movement and turn that tide.”

Image credit: Alamy

Vanesha Singh

Vanesha Singh is the assistant editor at the Fabian Society.

@_vaneshasingh

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