Scottish election 2021: Anas Sarwar declares ‘Keir Starmer knows I’m the boss'
Anas Sarwar doesn’t miss a beat when he is asked about the influence the Labour party south of the border has in Scotland.
The Scottish Labour leader – who took over as head of the party just six weeks ago – was pictured giving relaxed, Covid-friendly elbow bumps to Sir Keir Starmer when the Westminster Labour leader came to Scotland to support Mr Sarwar’s campaign last week.
“I speak to Keir, but both he knows and the UK party more widely knows – and the party in Scotland knows – that I lead the Scottish Labour Party ” Mr Sarwar says.
"I’m in charge of the Scottish Labour Party. I shape our decisions for the Scottish party, I shape our election, I shape our policies, I shape our campaigns in partnership with our members in Scotland.
"So, whilst I have conversations with him, I’m the boss.”
With the Scottish Labour manifesto due to be launched today,Mr Sarwar’s Scottish campaign has so far been firmly rooted in the idea of unity – setting his party apart from what he says is a distracting argument about independence.
He has published a “national recovery plan”, which focuses heavily on Scotland uniting to prioritise post-Covid recovery.
He says: “I don't think independence is inevitable, I don't think a referendum is inevitable.
"I think we can choose something different. And I think we can choose to focus over the next five years on our national recovery, and how we come back to this pandemic as a stronger and better nation.”
His united relationship with Sir Keir appears to be very different to that between Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who as well as appearing to get the Scottish leader’s name wrong at a Prime Minister’s Questions last month, appeared not to keep Mr Ross informed of his involvement – or lack thereof – in the Scottish election campaign.
"I'm not sure if he is going to come up, I previously expected him to come up,” Mr Ross told journalists, before later confirming the Prime Minister would not venture north during this campaign.
It is not the only respect in which Mr Sarwar differs from Mr Ross.
Early on in the campaign, Mr Sarwar admitted he had never had a conversation with the MP, despite the Scottish Tory leader’s repeated suggestions that pro-union parties should work together to fight independence.
He dismisses the idea of forming a Better Together-style coalition in the event of a second independence referendum – insisting he wants to “do something different”.
Mr Sarwar says: “In terms of the make-up of any kind of campaign on another referendum, I don't think that's a consideration. I think we should be focusing on our national recovery, not on campaigns around binary choices that are designed to pull our country apart rather than pull people together.”
He adds: “I think if we look at what the parliament was created for, it was designed to encourage parties to work together in the national interest, it was designed to not to have too much power for one political party.
"And so, I think the ideal outcome coming through this election would be for no party to have an overall majority and for Labour to be in a stronger position that is pulling the government and the First Minister towards the people's priorities and not let them take their eye off the ball again."
Although he has plenty to say about the SNP’s performance in areas such as drugs deaths, poverty rates, education and policing, he is surprisingly uncritical when it comes to her handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Sarwar does, however, point to widely condemned failings in the discharge of elderly people from hospitals into care homes without a negative coronavirus test as the government’s biggest mistake.
He says: "Nicola has communicated better than Boris Johnson in this pandemic. She has intended to lead from the front in this pandemic.
"There have been difficult decisions and I'm not going to pretend they would have been easy decisions. But I think what happened in care homes has been the biggest mistake.”
Education – and the post-Covid recovery of young people – is a subject close to Mr Sarwar's heart.
He has three children with wife Furheen, now aged four, ten and 12. His oldest son, he says, helped him out in the leadership campaign, canvassing party members by phone – and he is planning to put the whole family to work in the next three weeks.
He says: “During this election so far, he’s not been brave enough to do any calls, but I think I’ll probably get them out doing some leaflets or something. What’s the point in having them, otherwise?”
Mr Sarwar’s education focus has been on his policy of a post-Covid "personal comeback plan" for every child, which would see teachers asked to take part in one-to-one tutoring for youngsters whose schooling has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic – as well as a summer plan that would see a pass given to children to allow them to enjoy cultural and sporting activities over the holidays.
Mr Sarwar says: “There's not a single parent across the country who hasn't looked into their children's eyes over this last lockdown and thought about the huge health and wellbeing impact it’s having on their children, and the wider mental health impact. You can see it in their eyes.
"There is a huge job to be done to rebuild that confidence in children, young people, for them to catch up and on that most friendships that they've had or that lost socialisation that they've had. And also to normalise again, human interaction and human behaviour that that has become abnormal in the last year.”
Although he acknowledges that his new position is not one that traditionally appears to have much job security – he is the eighth person to hold the title in the past decade, including brief stints by acting leaders – Mr Sarwar’s ambitions are long term, with a realistic approach to Scottish Labour’s chances next month.
He says: “This is a long-term project, and I do think over the course of the next five years, we can get ourselves in a position where we are a credible alternative and compete at the next election.
"And I hope, at some point, elect a Labour government and Labour first minister. Obviously, I would of course love to be First Minister after the sixth of May, and that’s up to the Scottish people to decide, but I'm also realistic about where we are and how much more we have to claim, and how much more rebuilding work we have to do to get back people's trust.
“This is the most important job in British politics in my view, being leader of the Scottish Labour Party, but it's also a job that doesn't naturally come with a long shelf life, or life expectancy.
"I want to break that mould and I'm determined that this is a long-term project to get the Labour party back to where it really needs to be, and that's on the side of the Scottish people. And hopefully that that's reflected in how it performs in elections.”
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