Dani Garavelli: Has Anas Sarwar’s gaffe-fest killed off his candidacy?

Anas Sarwar on the first day of his campaign to be Scottish Labour leader. He has been hit by accusations of hypocrisy. Photograph: John Devlin
Anas Sarwar on the first day of his campaign to be Scottish Labour leader. He has been hit by accusations of hypocrisy. Photograph: John Devlin
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There was a point in last year’s Tory leadership election when it became clear all Theresa May had to do to win was to stand still and wait for Andrea Leadsom to self-destruct. May kept schtum as a series of storms – the sexed-up CV, the lacklustre TV performances and, finally, the tasteless dig at her childlessness – battered her rival’s credibility, until she was forced to withdraw, handing May victory by default.

It’s early days, but there’s already a sense of deja vu about the head-to-head fight to replace Kezia Dugdale as Scottish Labour leader. To many outside the party, “left-wing” candidate Richard Leonard is an unknown quantity. He has, as yet, done little to demonstrate his suitability for the role; but his chances are being greatly enhanced by “moderate” Anas Sarwar’s omnishambles of a campaign.

According to those who know him, Sarwar has always been a man with his eye on the prize. Youngest son of Mohammad, the country’s first Muslim MP, he was born into politics. Having already served as deputy (under Johann Lamont) he has had plenty of opportunity to observe the inner workings of the party and prepare the ground for his own leadership bid when the time was right.

Though not universally popular, most believe he has acquitted himself competently as shadow health minister, holding Shona Robison to account on missed targets and the “black hole” in NHS funding and pushing the government to lift the public sector pay cap.

Yet, despite these auspicious omens, his campaign has been hit by a succession of entirely foreseeable controversies. The backlash over his decision to send his children to Hutchesons’ Grammar was damaging enough: championing comprehensive education, while forking out £10,000 a year in school fees is not a good look for anyone who claims to stand for social justice. So long as aspirational parents opt out of the state system, the attainment gap will remain entrenched.

Still, Sarwar is hardly the first Labour politician not to practise what he preaches on the education front. The row would probably have blown over were it not for journalists raising questions about his family’s cash and carry business. First, it emerged recruits at United Wholesale (Scotland) Ltd, in which Sarwar owns 23 per cent of the shares, were being offered £7.50 an hour: 95p an hour less than the “real” living wage demanded by poverty groups (and endorsed by Sarwar) and £2.50 an hour less than the £10 an hour living wage Jeremy Corbyn has promised.

Then, just days later, there were allegations the company, which in 2015 made a post-tax profit of £1.7 million, had no formal trade union recognition in place for its 250 workers. Sarwar later confirmed these allegations (though he insisted it was only because no union had ever asked for it).

His shoulder-shrugging response to concerns over the hourly pay rate – which was to insist that as a minority share-holder and non-director he had no power to influence policy – demonstrated a failure to grasp the significance of the revelation.

His reluctance to extricate, or even distance himself from his family’s business leaves him vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy. But it also says something about his lack of political acumen and understanding of where Scotland is at.

If the slight increase in Labour seats north of the Border at the General Election was down mostly to the Corbyn bounce, then Sarwar – a Blairite millionaire – was already at a disadvantage; not championing workers’ rights can only reinforce his image as an out-of-touch member of the neo-liberal elite.

Next to all this, his plan to encourage gender parity by creating a second deputy post (to be filled by a woman) may seem relatively innocuous, but it has frustrated some female members.

A lack of women in leadership roles is a very real problem for Labour; unless it acts soon, all four of its top jobs in Westminster and Scotland will be held by men. But Sarwar’s plan – which echoes a proposal being made in the national party – seems tokenistic.

Given Alex Rowley is already in place as Deputy No 1, it will be hard to sell the new post as anything more than a wee pretendy role: a sop to stop women complaining. And how would the remits be divided? Would the woman be expected to handle “female” subjects such as childcare, education and period poverty? If so, gender stereotypes would be reinforced.

If Sarwar were serious about equal representation, he could call on Rowley to step down and promise a root-and-branch investigation into why the party fails to identify and nurture female talent. As it is, he is far from convincing.

The onslaught of criticism certainly sucked the energy from his campaign launch, where many of his soundbites about social justice rang hollow. Meanwhile, Leonard has to do very little to impress; he may, like Sarwar, have been privately educated, but as a former GMB organiser his trade union credentials are unimpeachable.

At his own launch, he sold himself as a breath of fresh air; he pushed his trade union bona fides and stressed: “There will be no ground ceded to nationalism at the expense of progressive socialism under my leadership.”

His assertion: “We need wholesale, real and radical change and we need a completely new approach,” will have been music to the ears to those disaffected voters who believe Labour has cosied up to the Tories.

Of course, there is plenty of evidence that Labour members in Scotland are slightly more centrist than their English and Welsh counterparts, with only 40 per cent describing themselves as “fairly left wing” compared to 47 per cent in England and Wales, according to a YouGov poll. But Leonard is busy encouraging new members to join before the October 13 deadline.

In the months before Dugdale resigned, she was constantly undermined by left-wingers desperate for a Corbynite leader; if Sarwar doesn’t up his game and pay more than lip service to the ideas of equality and social justice, it looks as if they will get their man.