Scottish Election 2021: Anas Sarwar faces his first huge test as Scottish Labour leader

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Anas Sarwar is preparing to lead from the front in what is his first huge test as the leader of the Scottish Labour party. Sarwar was elected in late February following the resignation of former leader Richard Leonard. In doing so, he became the first British Pakistani Muslim MP to lead a major political party in the UK. Both he and Scottish Labour head into the May 6 elections aiming to re-establish their place as Scotland’s second party after a disappointing showing in 2016 - but it will prove a hard task.

Even before his appointment, this was the best-case scenario. Only days prior to his election, Ipsos MORI’s Scottish Political Monitor projected an SNP majority. It would mark an unprecedented fourth term with the party’s majority in real terms increasing by nine seats to 15. This would hand the SNP 72 seats overall. Crucially, it would also be enough to hand them a working majority in parliament, having fallen 2 short in 2016 when they secured 63 of the 129 seats. 

In the same Ipsos-Mori poll, both The Scottish Conservatives - 25 seats - and Scottish Labour - 19 seats - were projected to finish a fair distance behind. Despite the Alex Salmond investigation which threatened to derail the SNP and oust its leader Nicola Sturgeon, the party maintained a healthy lead.

Fast forward to May and minor reputational damage notwithstanding, the script reads largely the same. Their victory is widely expected, with the only real point of contention being whether the working majority is secured. More recent data suggests that margins have tightened, but a majority is still likely. Modelling by Sir John Curtice in The Times predicts a 68 seat outcome. The strategic insight agency Opinium have predicted 67 seats. This, of course, could have significant implications for the whole of the UK as it would ease the path to a potential second vote on Scottish Independence.

“If there is a simple, democratic majority in the Scottish parliament for an independence referendum, there will be no democratic, electoral or moral justification whatsoever for Boris Johnson or anyone else to block the right of people in Scotland to decide their own future.”

Nicola Sturgeon, April 2021

Part of this support comes from an unflinching stance on the subject of indyref2. Central to the party’s identity is support for Scottish Independence. Given renewed impetus by a BREXIT Scotland did not vote for, the SNP have campaigned for Scots to be given a second vote on a matter that has remained a topic of national debate ever since. By contrast, Sawar has been keener to press home on what he believes to be ‘bigger issues at play’. Labour’s opposition to Scottish independence and a second referendum was clear in its manifesto, but Sarwar’s penchant for sidestepping the matter in favour of ‘the bigger picture’ has seen him accused of fence-sitting by his opponents.

However, his popularity as a candidate has only continued to rise. Less than a month into leading the party, he was praised as the star of the first leadership debate.

Sarwar definitely has something – a reasonableness and decency that hides an inner steel. It would be no surprise if Labour takes back second place from the Conservatives on 6 May.

Chris Deerin, New Statesman

This view has carried through to the eve of election day. Of the 1,008 pollsters surveyed by Survation between April 30 and May 4, 34% thought favourably of Sarwar. Conversely, 21% had unfavourable feelings toward him. Only Nicola Sturgeon boasted a more favourable result. Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, had a net favorability of -25%.

Sarwar has also pushed for a departure from the ‘old politics of division’. Instead, he has called for others to ‘obsess’ over recovery in the NHS, the economy, as well as addressing child poverty and the climate emergency. 

The party’s post-pandemic recovery plan has featured the flagship £1.2 billion economic programme. Central to it is a job guarantee for anyone under the age of 25. This is part of what Scottish Labour is calling ‘the biggest job creation scheme in the history of devolution’.

Other policies they have banked on include raising the minimum social carers’ pay to £12, increased funding to cancer treatment and reform of Scotland’s GP services. This is besides personal tutoring programmes for returning students. Despite this, they have been unable to translate the surge in Sarwar’s popularity into a more favourable outlook leading up to the election. For some, the issue of Indyref2 is too big a hurdle to overcome.

Sarwar is opposed to indyref2 and so he will always find it hard to reach the 50% of voters who support independence. His positive tone is refreshingly different to the approach of some of his predecessors, but on substance, he is still slamming the door on people who want another referendum. Having a “clear” view on the constitution has its benefits, such as removing the need to constantly clarify a muddled position. But it also inevitably limits your potential support base with a huge chunk of voters who have an equally clear, but fundamentally different, position. Sarwar is having a better campaign than Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross, but the pair of them are fighting for the same half-share of the electorate alongside the Lib Dems.

Paul Hutcheon, Political Editor at the Daily Record

Anas Sarwar will contest Glasgow Southside with Nicola Sturgeon tomorrow, and the overwhelming expectation is that he will lose. His seat in Holyrood is almost certainly secure, however, as he was placed second on the party’s election ballot for the Glasgow region. This means he will benefit from the additional Member System employed by the Scottish parliament. It results in seats being allocated to parties via the regional vote. Most analysts are predicting a sobering result for Scottish Labour ahead of tomorrow.

Mayowa Ayodele

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