Anas Sarwar puede recordar el momento exacto en que se dio cuenta de que su familia no era como otras familias, y que los desafíos que enfrentaban debido al color de su piel serían de por vida..
Sarwar, now the leader of Scottish Labour and the first Muslim and person of colour to head a major political party in the UK, estaba 12. He was watching cartoons at his grandmother’s house on the south side of Glasgow while his father, Mohammad, awaited the result of a bitter internal selection contest for the Westminster seat of Govan in 1995.
“My mum and dad were at the count. I remember my gran, who had very limited English, telling us to put the radio on.” As the boys watched television, Sarwar heard the result come through: his father had lost the selection to be Labour candidate by one vote, after ballots from Muslim members were disqualified amid allegations of vote rigging and racism (he eventually won the candidacy in a re-run). “My gran broke down and sobbed," él dice.
“The reason he lost by that one vote was because they ruled out votes from BAME members. It was on that basis that he challenged it in the courts. And that’s when I realised that electing him, as Britain’s first Muslim member of parliament, would be a real fight. Y, after that, all the threats, all the abuse that came with it. People forget my dad had to take the Labor party to the high court in order to get selected. That was 1995. It’s a very strange journey to 26 years later – that me, his son, is now leading that same political party.”
He says he has never forgotten the reassurance that his mother gave to his father when they returned home from the count that night: “She’s still saying it today: we are going to do this, we’re not going to let the haters win, we’re doing the right thing.”
In Scotland – and in Glasgow in particular – those “haters” would say that Sarwar’s father, a self-made millionaire who mixed with the Bhutto family and left British politics to serve as the governor of Punjab in his native Pakistan, used his wealth and status to secure support. They would say that his son enjoyed a privileged upbringing and stepped effortlessly into his father’s Commons seat when he vacated it in 2010. They would tell him that they won’t elect “someone like him”. En efecto, Sarwar claims that a Labour councillor, Davie McLachlan, told him during his first leadership bid, en 2017, that Scotland wouldn’t vote “for a brown Muslim paki”. McLachlan has repeatedly denied making the remark.
The father’s son takes all this head on: the route from then to now was neither direct nor easy, él dice. Being brought up by one of Scotland’s most controversial politicians meant discovering death threats depicting his mother with a gun to her head on the family doorstep.
Ahora, Sarwar faces an imminent fight. Barely two months after he became Labour leader, the country will go to the polls on 6 May to elect a new parliament in Holyrood.
Three days before he took on the job, an opinion poll put Labour at 14% in Scotland – a devastatingly low figure for a party that was once supreme, especially in its industrial heartlands. In the last Holyrood elections, en 2016, Labour trailed a humiliating third behind Ruth Davidson’s revivified Tories. With the SNP predicted a third successive win, Sarwar’s party faces an uphill battle even for second place.
He is bracingly honest about the challenge he faces: “The pathway that I need to take the Labour party on is, una, survival. From survival to relevance. From relevance to credible opposition from credible opposition to credible alternative.” He admits “it’s a big ask to fulfil that journey in eight weeks,” but he believes it may be possible by the next Holyrood elections, in five years’ time.
Sarwar, who is only 38, is the party’s ninth leader since the millennium. He replaced Richard Leonard, a Corbynite, who resigned suddenly in January after losing the confidence of prominent trade union allies.
Sarwar is keen to move his party away from “the traditional bunfight” of politics, él dice, and introduce himself to an electorate whose primary concern is when they might get their vaccine, rather than what is happening in Holyrood. While Sarwar is respectful enough about his predecessor, his derision for the Corbyn project is plain: he talks about “regime change which accelerated decline in Scotland” and the need to employ “the politics of unity that doesn’t use the language of the 1980s”.
Even before the campaign began officially last week, Sarwar was putting in a heavy shift of media appearances. This contrasts with Leonard, a career trade unionist and thoughtful man whose reluctance to engage in chummy at-homes with journalists was a source of consternation for his communications team. Unlike any election before, reaching the electorate online and in the media will be crucial: Instagram sessions will take priority over doorstep canvassing; socially distanced interviews will replace campaign rallies.
Sarwar’s change of tone has been evident in his response to the Alex Salmond saga, también: Labour MSPs abstained on last week’s vote of no confidence in Nicola Sturgeon, which was tabled by the Tories and called “grubby party politics” by Sarwar. This weekend, after Salmond upended the election campaign by launching a new pro-independence party, Sarwar rejected the invitation of the new Tory leader, Douglas Ross, to re-establish a pro-union coalition along the lines of Better Together, telling Ross bluntly to “grow up”.
But with polls showing a surge in support for independence, there is a risk of shutting down a conversation that voters want to have. We meet just after Hollie Cameron, a 29-year-old former yes voter, estaba removed by Labour as a Holyrood candidate in Glasgow. Her offence? She gave an interview to a pro-independence newspaper in which she claimed that Labour would support a second referendum, contradicting Sarwar’s rejection of any constitutional debate.
Surely Cameron is precisely the sort of candidate to appeal to younger, progressive, indy-curious voters who have turned to the SNP in their droves since 2014?
“I want to appeal to people of all age groups, particularly young people. I’m not surprised by the opinion polls that show that 16- to 24-year-olds are most likely to support independence, because they have not lived one day of their adult lives in a stable United Kingdom. They have lived with Brexit chaos, with Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and at the same time the Labour party has not been on the pitch in Scotland.” Such voters believe that the SNP are “the only hope and change on offer”, él dice.
“In recent years, people have wanted to focus on just what Labour is against, not what Labour is for," él dice. “I don’t support independence. I don’t support a referendum. But I want people to vote for us because they know that we are for the NHS, for rebuilding our economy, investing in jobs, challenging the climate emergency.”
Cameron’s treatment unleashed a torrent of criticism that may have been looking for an outlet since Sarwar was elected. An open letter calling for her reinstatement was signed by the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell and several hundred Labour officials, councillors and activists, many on the left of the party. It argued that, to succeed in Scotland, the party must be “a broad church”. Others took it as a clear signal that equivocation over the constitution was over.
Every statement by a new Scottish leader is inevitably scrutinised for evidence of whether they are distancing themselves from the UK operation or subordinating themselves to it – behaving as a “branch office”, as the former leader Johann Lamont so damningly described the relationship in 2014.
Sarwar insists he will be “robust” in demonstrating his autonomy and that if he and Starmer are politically similar it is because “we both want to win”. Starmer has plans for a constitution commission, headed by Gordon Brown, with more on this expected ahead of the Holyrood elections. Sarwar insists: “We don’t need a referendum to deliver more devolution.”
Besides, Sarwar is acutely aware of what a “broad church” means for Labour. He has been pushing party leaflets through letterboxes since he was tall enough to do so; he became a member at the age of 15. His relationship with the party is deep – informed by his perspective as a Scot as much as by race and religion – but has, at times, been conflicted. He marched against the Iraq war in 2003, when he was a dentistry student at the University of Glasgow. “It didn’t feel like the Labour party I joined," él dice. Pero, unlike many of his peers, who fled the party, this only pushed him further towards Labour, in the hope of changing the party from within. When he stood successfully as a Westminster candidate, en 2010, the Labour party was riven by internal discord and exhausted after more than a decade in government in London. But Sarwar says there was – in Glasgow at least – an energy and emotional attachment that he had not witnessed during the Blair years. “A large part of that was that Scots had an affinity for the Scottish prime minister [Gordon Brown] and what they thought was a UK press giving him a particularly hard deal.”
When his father decided to stand aside as the MP for Glasgow Central that year and Sarwar stepped up as a candidate in the same seat, it appeared an almost seamless transition – and one that the same critics would dismiss as further proof of dynastic privilege.
But Sarwar tells it differently: it had taken him many years to consider a political career. To those who say he had “things handed to him on a plate”, él dice: “Anyone that knows me, anyone that’s campaigned with me, knows that, para mí, politics isn’t a game. I’m not doing it for any title; it’s because I love the Labour party.”
He pauses: “The privilege question is interesting: I often think: ‘Do people honestly think that this is the easy road?’” His voices hardens, as if he is becoming bullish, but it becomes apparent that he is struggling to contain his emotions.
“I remember how it felt. My eldest son, Adam, is the same age as I was [when my father was first selected]. I remember all the days I cried, all the days …” He bows his head and pinches the bridge of his nose. A moment or two passes. “I remember going out to play football with my friends and, afterwards, I would cycle to the shop to get the newspapers, to see what horrible things were going to be written that day. I used to buy the papers and stop, read them before taking them home, pretending I hadn’t seen them and handing them over to my dad to read. The main reason why the thought of elected politics was horrific to me was I did not want my kids to feel those feelings.”
Sarwar has three children. En 2017, during his failed leadership battle, he signed over his shareholding in his family’s wholesale firm, worth an estimated £4.8m, to a trust that they will be able to access only as adults. He sends his son to the same private school to which his father sent him. Most politicians these days have polished origin stories, but it often feels as if Sarwar is still working out the significance of his relationship with his father.
He says that his father “probably always wanted me to go into politics”, before turning again to his teenage years. “People often forget that my father was a very, very controversial individual. It was relentless. I mentioned the high court in terms of his selection contest; then there was his suspension from the Labour party, another high court trial [both related to electoral fraud allegations, of which he was cleared]. Those were big moments that really shook us as a family, over 10 años, before he was properly accepted and respected for who he was. That was the age of 12 a 22 para mí, and that’s a very formative time in anybody’s life.”
But there was another factor that finally prompted him to stand for election in 2010: he believed politics had changed in terms of race and that his presence as a politician “meant the generation that followed us would see past difference, see past colour and religion”. Then he adds, briskly: “I look back on that and think how naive I was, because I don’t think that any more.”
He joined the Holyrood parliament in 2016, after losing his seat as an MP in the SNP Commons landslide in 2015. Shortly after, he formed a working group on Islamophobia. The level of abuse he received after setting it up led him to seek security advice from the police. “I’m battle-hardened," él dice. “I’ve grown up with abuse, threats, prank phone calls … I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t have an impact on me. Of course it does.”
Does it depress him that it has taken this long to see a party leader of colour, or a Muslim? “It doesn’t depress me. I think we have continued to make progress in diversity in the parliament in Westminster.” In the Scottish parliament, aunque, “we have stagnated”, él dice. “And we have a lot of work to do, particularly in encouraging women to come forward.” This work has led him to find common ground across political lines: he mentions Humza Yousaf, the SNP justice minister, who congratulated Sarwar warmly after his election win. It is a flicker of hope at a particularly toxic period in Scottish politics.
In the launch of his election campaign on Thursday, he announced he would be applying to the Electoral Commission to put his name alongside the Labour party on ballot papers. While this was reported as evidence of presidential-style campaigning, it may reflect a different kind of confidence: that voters will not be dissuaded by a Muslim name.
His election gives him hope, él dice: “It says something amazing about Scotland and its people. That someone like me, that looks like me, from my background, can be elected a leader of a political party … But let’s not pretend that the fight for equality is over.”