ANAS Sarwar is standing beside the statue of Donald Dewar on a bitingly cold Glasgow afternoon. Despite the close proximity of at least the spirit of Scotland’s first First Minister, the young Labour MP is explaining that it wasn’t preserving the Union that he had in mind when he entered politics.
The former dentist insists that his main policy interest has always been foreign affairs and that he had hoped to use his parliamentary platform to make a difference on the conflict in Palestine and in the war-torn region of Kashmir.
But now he finds himself in a leading role on the domestic battlefront after being chosen to lead Labour’s campaign against Scottish independence.
“I never thought I would have to fight a political battle for my own country in this way,” said Sarwar, a born-and-bred Glaswegian. Sarwar, the son of Mohammad Sarwar – the UK’s first Muslim MP and a cash and carry tycoon – has been appointed by party leader Johann Lamont, ahead of an official campaign launch in the New Year.
A year ago tomorrow, the 29-year-old Glasgow Central MP was elected overwhelmingly as deputy Scottish Labour leader with the biggest mandate of any Labour politician by the party faithful north of the border. He says he will work with the cross-party Better Together campaign but aims to provide a “distinctive” Labour voice.
He insists the campaign will champion a “very different vision” of Scotland within the UK to that of the Tories and Lib Dems and make a direct pitch to Labour voters in the run-up to the 2014 referendum.
For Sarwar, part of a political and business dynasty, the launch of the Labour campaign against independence offers the party a chance of a new beginning following last year’s disastrous election defeat.
He claims it will also help in paving the way for a Labour victory at the next Holyrood elections in 2016.
Traditional Labour messages about the redistribution of wealth and tackling poverty will be at the heart of the message. Although he defends the controversial Labour and Tory co-operation in the Better Together campaign, he is looking beyond the referendum result. “We recognise that Better Together has got a job to do, but it will come to an end after the referendum,” he said. “The Labour Party will go on after this and we need to have separate Labour focus.
“There’s a recognition by us that we need a specific Labour campaign that highlights issues such as the redistribution of wealth and how to tackle poverty. The Labour case for the Union is driven by social justice and how this can be better achieved by being part of the Union.”
The campaign name and slogan will not be unveiled until early 2013. “It’s less about what the campaign is called and more about how we organise and communicate with people,” Sarwar said.
The MP goes out of his way to praise Alistair Darling for his leadership of the Better Together campaign and insists the former chancellor is doing a “fantastic job”.
There could also be a place for Gordon Brown in the Labour campaign as Sarwar talks about wanting to “bring together all the talents, both old and new” refusing to rule out the involvement of the former prime minister who presided over an increase in the party’s vote in Scotland in 2010.
“The nationalists would love people to believe that all the talent and ability is on their side, but we have so many big voices in Labour,” he insisted. “All the big figures have a role to play.”
What’s clear is that Sarwar is determined that his role as deputy leader will not be seen as the non-position it has traditionally been viewed as within Labour at Scottish and UK-wide level. If he succeeds in his role then there is a possibility that Sarwar could use his campaigning zeal to pitch for the leadership of Scottish Labour and become the first leader of a major political party north of the border from an ethnic minority background.
“I stood for election as deputy leader because I recognise the status quo in the Labour Party is not acceptable,” he said.
The pressing need was to reposition the party in 2013 following its disastrous showing at the Holyrood elections last year. And he is seeing 2013 as the “year of change” for Labour north of the border as it devises new ways of campaigning as an organisation.
To that end the pro-Union campaign was all-important. “The referendum campaign will build a lasting legacy of activists to build on a positive referendum result,” he said.