They both went to private school but were drawn to Left-wing politics. Now, Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard are in a battle for the leadership of Scottish Labour following the shock resignation of Kezia Dugdale. Here, STEPHEN DAISLEY examines what the two pretenders to the throne believe and asks what do they offer their party and the country?
Anas Sarwar is a scion of one of the most powerful dynasties in Scottish politics. His father Mohammad made history when he became the first Muslim MP elected to the House of Commons in 1997. He later served as the Governor of Punjab, in central Pakistan.
But Glasgow-born Anas did not immediately follow his father into politics. After being schooled at Hutchesons’ Grammar, an independent academy on the city’s south side, he studied dentistry at Glasgow University. The allure of the political life proved too strong, however, and after five years of practice he stood in the 2010 General Election, winning the Glasgow Central seat his father was relinquishing after 13 years.
Sarwar fils rose through the ranks at Olympic speed and was elected Scottish Labour deputy leader in December 2011, to serve under new party boss Johann Lamont. His polished manner, practised charm and plentiful confidence saw him become the party’s go-to spokesman for TV interviews, where he displayed an ability to ‘hold a line’ undaunted by the impositions of fact and relevance.
His gallus manner and thick hide were to come in handy during the independence referendum, where he found himself on the frontline against the Nationalist war machine. Despite contributing to the victory that saved the Union, Mr Sarwar fell on his sword along with Johann Lamont in December 2014. Six months later, his father’s socialist redoubt in Glasgow Central fell to the SNP in Nicola Sturgeon’s 2015 tidal wave. Mr Sarwar was back a year later, claiming a list seat in the Holyrood poll that saw Scottish Labour come third to Ruth Davidson’s rejuvenated Tories.
His prominence as a Unionist politician and a leader within the Muslim community has seen Mr Sarwar targeted for death threats. In 2015, a chilling message was left on his voicemail. ‘I’ll come down with a f*****g bullet and put it in you,’ warned the anonymous caller. ‘You sell your soul for a bit of money. You cowardly b*****d.’ Earlier this year, he was sent a picture of gallows on social media; the image, he said at the time, was meant ‘to symbolise what happens to me and others after independence’.
Thirty-four-year-old Mr Sarwar believes he can take Labour forward at a time when the party is leading in the polls UK-wide and the SNP is on the back-foot in Scotland. That means putting to rest the ideological civil war that has threatened to tear Labour apart for the past two years. In an apparent rebuff of his predecessor, who was vocal about her opposition to Jeremy Corbyn, Mr Sarwar has insisted: ‘The contest will not be about the direction of the UK Labour Party… It will be about electing a leader who can serve our country as the next First Minister of Scotland.’
It is a testament to how Labour has changed under Jeremy Corbyn that Mr Sarwar, hitherto identified with the Blairite wing of the party, has made the journey Leftwards — rhetorically at least. In 2016, he signed an open letter urging Mr Corbyn to consider his position. Now he says: ‘We are all united in our desire to elect Jeremy Corbyn as our next prime minister’ and he has recruited as one of his campaign managers the impeccably Left-wing MSP Pauline McNeill. Mr Sarwar is sending a signal to Corbynistas that he would not drag Scottish Labour back to the centre ground.
One hurdle confronting the leadership hopeful falls awkwardly between the personal and the political. Mr Sarwar and his wife Furheen, also a dentist, send their two sons to an independent school. That news might be met with indifference from the general public but within the ranks of the People’s Party, it is a grave heresy. So much so that internal critics are already briefing journalists that the Glasgow MSP’s wealth — estimated at almost £3m by a Sunday newspaper last year — could hurt him with the membership.
Accused of careerism by his rivals, party activists take a more balanced view of Mr Sarwar. One prominent activist says: ‘Richard Leonard is well-respected including on the right, though he has lower name recognition; Sarwar has great recognition and has been very visibly reaching out Leftwards. Among those for whom this choice is more than a five-second tribal decision, I think Sarwar might be edging it on the basis of being a known quantity.’
Addressing the charge that Mr Sarwar is a power-seeker of no fixed political abode, the insider adds: ‘I think you’ll only hear ‘careerist’ about Anas from people who were never going to vote for him. Among the middle of the party I think he’s seen as energetic and engaging. I think people have very little sense of how Richard might fare at FMQs, whereas they can absolutely imagine Anas doing it, and that simple lack of exposure for Richard plays to Anas’ favour.’
Mr Sarwar is well-connected but he could be facing his closest battle yet. His opponent in this contest is held in good regard even by activists who don’t share his farther-Left outlook. As a key player in the centrist wing admits: ‘I don’t think Anas has the moderates sewn up; folk like me could be tempted by Richard Leonard if the Corbynites pipe down and he looks like building bridges… Unlike the last couple of UK leadership elections, and the Jim v Neil v Sarah contest, I’m not scared of either one of them winning.’
The pundits and party operatives don’t expect Richard Leonard to win the Scottish Labour leadership so there’s a decent chance that he will. If past form is anything to go by, predicting the outcome of Labour elections (or, come to think of it, any election) is a mug’s game. Follow the money and it becomes clear how close the face-off could be. Ladbrokes is offering odds of 6/4 on Mr Leonard and 7/4 on Mr Sarwar.
The big question about Richard Leonard is this: Who is Richard Leonard? ‘It’s basically his big problem — he’s not known,’ one Labour grassroots mainstay explains.
The Central Scotland MSP is entitled to feel a little miffed by his apparent anonymity. He has been a Scottish Labour member and activist for more than 30 years and his career before parliamentary politics was spent working in the labour movement.
Like Anas Sarwar he was privately educated, in his case at Pocklington School in the East Riding of Yorkshire. (If both men have taken their old school mottos to heart, we should be in for a clean fight. Mr Leonard’s alma mater instructs Virtute et Veritate — ‘With Virtue and Truth’ — while Mr Sarwar’s proclaims Veritas — ‘Truth’.) After graduating from Stirling University, Mr Leonard spent 20 years as an organiser for the GMB and also served as head of economics at the STUC. His allegiance lies with the Left of the party and he will be seen by many as a natural ally of Jeremy Corbyn.
That doesn’t sit well with some in the rank and file who believe the lesson of recent years is that Scottish Labour must be moderate-Left and pro-Union.
One party organiser admits: ‘My concerns are that he will move the party to the Left when it’s already where it needs to be, based on a misreading of the election as an endorsement of Jeremy, and that amongst the good people around him there are some c**p people. Also I’m not yet sure about what his stance on the Union is. There is also a question whether he really gets the need for reform in public services, or whether he will just take the big unions’ line on everything.
‘We need to be a centre-left Unionist party, attacking both the Nats and the Tories from the Left; bashing the former on delivery of public services and the latter on Brexit. I think whoever convinces on that will win. The party up here is not wholly Corbynite.’
The Unionist point is one Mr Leonard can be expected to be pressed on. Jeremy Corbyn’s pre-election visits to Scotland were habitually marred by rows over his stance on separation. Given his position as the ‘Scottish Corbyn’, Mr Leonard will be eager to burnish his anti-independence credentials. Over the weekend, he insisted: ‘I have unflinchingly opposed nationalism and will continue to do so. Labour’s strength is that we organise and represent people across the whole of these islands, as part of a worldwide movement.’
His socialism isn’t as uncompromising as his more enthusiastic boosters might tell themselves. Aside from his fondness for public ownership, there is little in his priorities of ‘ending austerity, properly investing again in our public services and… redistributing wealth and power to the many from the few’ that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown would disagree with. The Labour Party is a very different beast these days but one that still espouses broadly the same values as in recent years.
If anything, his standing among the Corbynistas could be to his advantage in the weeks ahead. A leading campaigner identified with the centre of the party reveals: ‘Leonard’s support from the Left is absolutely nailed on – they operate very top-down and the Campaign for Socialism, Momentum and all the old cliques have chosen him, so it’s done. The Right doesn’t have those structures in Scotland. And the right is also still suffering from an element of “our rightful place has been stolen” whereas the Left is energised and disciplined.’
For Mr Leonard to win, it will not be enough to crank up the left-wing apparatus and sit back and wait for victory. He will have to prove that he is tough enough to take on Nicola Sturgeon, who is wounded but still a formidable scrapper. And members will want to know his plans for clawing back traditional Labour voters who abandoned them for the Tories. If he can combine social democracy at Holyrood with a commitment to solidarity across the UK, the unknown candidate could emerge the winner of this contest.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.