Anas Sarwar on Saturday won election as leader of Scottish Labour, becoming the first member of an ethnic minority to lead a major British party and taking on a potentially pivotal role in defending the unity of the UK against a renewed push for Scottish independence.
The dramatic decline of Labour in Scotland has been a central factor in the rise of the pro-independence Scottish National party, and some analysts say failure to recover as a serious force among left-leaning voters could doom the union. Scottish votes might also be vital to Labour’s hopes of a return to UK government.
But Sarwar, 37, faces a daunting challenge in shoring up support for Labour ahead of Scottish parliamentary elections scheduled for May 6. Recent opinion surveys suggest fewer than half as many voters are likely to back Scottish Labour as will support the SNP and most polls find the party still trailing behind the Scottish Conservatives for second place.
“I want to say directly to the people of Scotland, I know Labour has a lot of work to do to win back your trust,” Sarwar said in a video acceptance speech. “If we’re brutally honest, you haven’t had the Scottish Labour party you deserve.”
The new leader’s father is Mohammad Sarwar, who was the UK’s first Muslim MP and is currently governor of Punjab in Pakistan. In his acceptance speech Sarwar hailed his election as the first ethnic minority leader of a UK political party as saying “something great about Scotland and its people”.
In his speech, Sarwar made no direct mention of Scottish independence, which he opposes, or of the SNP’s plans to use a victory in May as a platform to push for a second referendum that might reverse the result of Scotland’s 2014 plebiscite, in which voters backed remaining in the UK by 55-45 per cent.
“I will be a leader that focuses on what unites our country, not what divides it,” said the former deputy leader of Scottish Labour, who defeated rival candidate and fellow member of the Scottish parliament Monica Lennon by 58 per cent of the party vote to 42.
During the leadership campaign Sarwar sought to fend off questions of whether Westminster should approve another referendum if there was another pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament after May’s election. Voters were more interested in issues such as coronavirus recovery, he said.
Some in the party fear that strategy will neither satisfy pro-union voters nor shore up the backing of the many current and former Labour supporters who like the idea of independence or at least feel that it is an issue that should be decided in Scotland.
Sarwar’s opponent Lennon, who also opposes independence, argued during the leadership campaign that Labour should accept there was a mandate for another referendum if there was a majority for one in the Scottish parliament. “It’s the people of Scotland’s choice to make,” Lennon said this month.
Some in the UK Conservative government say they privately hope for a Labour recovery in Scotland in order to stop the SNP, but Scottish party leader Douglas Ross disagrees and instead seeks to use the independence question to persuade potential Labour voters to back the Tories instead.
Labour could not be trusted on the union, Ross said on Friday. “We’ve seen at a number of elections now, Labour supporters coming to the Conservatives because they know that we are the only ones that can challenge the SNP.”