Anas Sarwar v Richard Leonard: Labour leader frontrunners profiled

After a flurry of early betting, more than perhaps might be expected for a contest that happens so regularly, the odds have now settled down in the market for the next Scottish Labour Leader.

It seems to be a  two-horse race between Richard Leonard (left) and frontbencher Anas Sarwar to succeed Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Scotsman
It seems to be a two-horse race between Richard Leonard (left) and frontbencher Anas Sarwar to succeed Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Scotsman

And it is looking like a straight fight for one of the Scottish party’s best known names, part of a Labour dynasty, and a fresh face who many think could be a ‘Scottish Corbyn’.

The two men who look set to battle it out are marshalling supporters, and Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard are the top two choices according to bookmakers.

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Kezia Dugdale shocked everyone when she abruptly announced that for a whole host of reasons, mainly, it would appear, personal ones, she would be stepping down from a role she has had for just two years.

She will be replaced, at least temporarily, by well-regarded ‘fixer’ Alex Rowley, but the current Deputy has expressed no desire to enter the fray himself and seek a promotion.

That leaves the path clear for Leonard and Sarwar to battle it out in a contest that could be as much about ideology and guiding principle as it is the practicalities of trying to make Scottish Labour winners again.

Anas Sarwar

With Scottish Labour, at least in terms of Holyrood, still in the doldrums, Anas Sarwar is one of the few remaining politicians from the party with something approaching name value.

The former dentist, who is the son of longstanding Glasgow MP Mohammed Sarwar, took over from his father as the representative for Glasgow Central.

He would have been forgiven for thinking that the seat, one of Labour’s safest, would be his as long as he wanted it, but he was defeated in the SNP surge at the General Election of 2015.

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Rumours that he was planning a return to frontline politics started almost immediately, and members looked askance at an event he hosted for 500 Labour activists and politicians later that year in Glasgow.

Sure enough, Mr Sarwar was placed top of the Glasgow list for the 2016 Holyrood election, and was appointed as Health Spokesperson by Kezia Dugdale.

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He has been praised for the impact he had in taking the SNP to task on that issue, but he is viewed with suspicion by some on the party’s left as overly ambitious and insincere in his recent support for UK leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Richard Leonard

Unsurprisingly, there is little and less to be discovered online about Leonard, who, like Sarwar, entered the Scottish Parliament in 2016.

The MSP for Central Scotland hasn’t yet announced his intentions, but with senior figures in left-wing circles claiming ‘there is no Plan B’, it would be surprising if he didn’t decide to stand.

Mr Leonard has spent decades in the Trade Union movement, an experience which can give anyone a solid grounding in politics.

A former economist, Mr Leonard was an organiser for the GMB, one of the biggest Trade Unions in Britain.

Even before he was the favourite for the leadership, Mr Leonard was well-regarded in the labour movement for his forceful public speaking.

At a number of appearances, he used the phrase: “Let’s stop dividing people by nationality, and start uniting them by class.”

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In those remarks, which he made at a variety of events, there is more than the hint of a slogan that his backers will suggest makes him best placed to move Scottish Labour, and the whole country, away from constitutional disagreements.

The battle

It is important to note that no-one has actually declared that they will be standing for the leadership of Scottish Labour.

In many ways, that isn’t surprising – for a long time the job has been considered something of a poisoned chalice, a view that hasn’t been diminished by the demonstrably bruising experience of Kezia Dugdale.

However, it is almost certain that the contest will be a battle between Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard.

It is too simplistic to paint this as a “left-wing v centrist” battle, but certainly Leonard is best placed to appeal to the pro-Corbyn elements in the party.

Mr Sarwar may note that Owen Smith actually defeated Mr Corbyn among members in Scotland, but overcoming Mr Leonard will be no mean feat.

One thing is certain – the Scottish Labour Party will continue to be far from dull.