Scottish Election 2021: Sarwar says he's 'tough enough' to take on Nicola Sturgeon as poll puts Labour second

Anas Sarwar has said he is “tough enough to take on Nicola Sturgeon” as a new poll predicts Labour will be the main opposition to the SNP in the next Parliament.

Anas Sarwar was challenged on his stance on an independence referendum.
Anas Sarwar was challenged on his stance on an independence referendum.

The Scottish Labour leader, who is going head-to-head with the First Minister in her constituency seat of Glasgow Southside, also accused the SNP of using “Tory sleaze” to hide their domestic failings.

However he was also forced to defend statements by Labour candidates on a second independence referendum which appeared to undermine his stance that the next five years of the Scottish Parliament should be focused on Covid recovery rather than the constitution.

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Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Mr Sarwar said Scots deserved a parliament which was not obsessed with “SNP psychodrama” with the “fundamental fault line” of the elections proving to be the Scottish Conservatives and SNP attempting to “divide the country” over independence and Boris Johnson’s government.

Mr Sarwar’s remarks came as Survation poll for The Sunday Post, saw his party predicted to return the same number of MSPs as in 2016, with 24, pushing Labour into second place, as the Tories lose nine MSPs to return just 22.

The poll saw the SNP win an overall majority with an increase of five MSPs to 67, and the Greens more than doubling their representation to 11 MSPs, while the LibDems remain stuck on just five.

Bemoaning the "political bubble" obsessing over the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum, Mr Sarwar argued the Scottish public actually wanted politicians to focus on recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

He said: "We're voting for our parliament, so what people are voting for is what they want the priorities to be for the next five years of our parliament.

"The case I'm making is: let's focus on the next five years, on coming through this most difficult year of our collective lifetime, this collective trauma of Covid and not go back.

"Let's instead go forward and let's focus on the economic recovery, focus on getting our kids back to school and their mental health, focus on all the cancer catch-up we need, and the mental health catch-up that we need, focus on making sure people have work and jobs to go back to after this crisis."

Asked whether an SNP majority would be a mandate for another referendum, Mr Sarwar replied: "I've got 11 days to try and persuade people across Scotland that we can choose something different.

"We can choose to not have the next five years being about an Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson fight. It doesn't have to be about the constitution, it can be about you, your family, and our national recovery."

He added: "Both the SNP and the Tories play up on each other's division. We have had 14 years of an SNP government, Nicola Sturgeon has been First Minister for seven years, and there has been failure after failure.

"But every time there's a failure, what they do is say: 'it wouldn't have have happened if we had independence'. Or, worse yet, they point at the Tories and say: 'at least we're not as bad as that lot'.

"Frankly, I think Scotland deserves better than that, it needs a better government and we need better opposition."

Earlier he told Sky News he was ready to take on Nicola Sturgeon on, saying: “Absolutely I can take her on and I’m standing directly in her own constituency as a demonstration of that.”

“I don’t want to take her on in the way that previous politicians want to take people on, which is shouting, getting angry, I think our politics deserves better than that.”

However Mr Sarwar was challenged on both shows over comments by several Labour candidates who are in favour of another independence referendum.

Tweets by Scottish Labour’s Dundee City West candidate Mercedes Villalba, Dundee City East candidate Owen Wright and Lothians candidate Nick Ward, all of whom backed the idea that a pro-independence majority in the parliament should result in a referendum, were read out.

Mr Sarwar said: “What people are talking about is of course Scotland has a right to choose our own future, but what we are all united on in this election campaign is we do not support independence, we do not support a referendum, we believe the next parliament should be focused entirely on delivering national recovery, not going back to the old arguments, and all our candidates are united on that.”

However Nicola Sturgeon, writing in The Observer, said that any blocking of a referendum by the UK Government “would be unsustainable."

She added: “For them to try to take legal action, as has been suggested, would be asking a court to effectively overturn the result of a free and fair democratic election. That would be an appalling look for any Prime Minister. More to the point, it didn’t work for Donald Trump and it wouldn’t work for Boris Johnson.

“Scotland’s future must, and will, be decided by the people of Scotland.”

Scottish Conservative candidate for Glasgow, Annie Wells, said Mr Sarwar’s remarks showed that Labour was “still determined to sit on the fence over another referendum.”

She added: “They can’t be trusted to oppose indyref2. Several Labour candidates would back a referendum right now and in the future, it’s clear that even more could give in to the SNP and support it.

“Keir Starmer won’t rule out indyref2 and Anas Sarwar won’t say if his candidates will oppose another referendum in the future.

“Labour backed the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill, they let Nicola Sturgeon away with misleading Parliament, and they won’t stand up to the nationalists when they demand another referendum.

“Their manifesto was savaged by the IFS. They have “no sense” of how to pay for their policies. They’re not even trying to be a credible opposition.”

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