This week we continue our five-part series interviewing the leaders of the five main political parties seeking to return to the Scottish Parliament by speaking to Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.


For decades, power rested on almost all levels of Scottish politics with the Labour Party.

But in the more than six years Nicola Sturgeon has been First Minister, Scottish Labour has had five leaders - not including the acting ones in between.

Anas Sarwar has only been the latest one for two months but insists he is not going anywhere.

His party’s pitch is to be a strong opposition - they’re a long way from being a government again. Could there ever be a Labour first minister again? Is “Labour” a dirty word now?

“I’m in this for the long-haul,” says Mr Sarwar. “This is a long-term project.

“What I’m doing is what too many politicians find uncomfortable: I’m being honest. Of course I would love to be first minister. Of course I would love Labour to have a massive gain in the polls and people come back to us.

“But I’m also realistic about the long-term challenge we face to win back the trust of the Scottish people and to get us back to a place where we can be a Labour government again and have a Labour first minister again.

“What I’m saying in this campaign is we do have a choice to stop an SNP majority and to have a better opposition.”

Election 2021: Profile of Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross

Election 2021: Profile of Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie

Election 2021: Profile of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon

And he is emphatic, despite “branch office” digs, that he is in charge. While he wants to help elect Keir Starmer as the next Labour PM, he says he won’t shy away from telling London when they get it wrong.

One of Mr Sarwar’s repeated points is he is different and he wants to abandon the “old arguments” or the binary choices of Yes/No, Leave/Remain.

He blames the SNP and Tories in particular for feeding the divisions, ones that benefit both parties.

“The reason why the SNP spend so much time attacking the Labour Party is they recognise through the break-down of the Labour Party, that’s what they see as the path to independence,” he says.

“The SNP can claim to be a left-of-centre political party, but you have to judge them on their record. After 14 years in government, after seven years of Ms Sturgeon being first minister, child poverty is on the rise, life expectancy is falling, we have seen the scandal home deaths over the course of this pandemic, you’ve seen decimation of council budgets.

“The SNP pursued the politics of division, the politics of us versus them - that isn’t Labour politics, that isn’t left-wing politics.”

Mr Sarwar dubs the current election as a “pandemic election”, falling during a crisis after 10,000 fellow Scots have lost their lives and ongoing threats to life and livelihoods.

He says the pandemic didn’t pick and chose between those past political arguments of 2014 and 2016 referendums.

Labour’s priority for recovery would be a guaranteed job for young people and the long-term unemployed - 170,000 new jobs in total. They would focus on catching up on missed cancer diagnoses. And they would tackle child poverty, now at the level of one in four across Scotland - and even higher in some communities.

“In all of these issues, we have the powers to act in Scotland,” says Mr Sarwar. “Let’s focus on what Scotland can do, not on what Scotland can’t do. and let’s take the urgent action we need to take to get people back to work, to get our NHS restored and renewed, and to eradicate child poverty.”

But Mr Sarwar’s focus on what can be done has yet to win against the SNP position that they don’t have powers to act.

“Sadly the SNP have framed the choice as if these are things we can only resolve if we have independence when they’ve been in government for 14 years, Nicola Sturgeon has been first minister for seven years.

“And she herself has admitted she took the eye off the ball on drug deaths. I think she took the eye off the ball on education, pre-pandemic on the NHS, on child poverty.

“It is quite sad actually that so much of our politics now seems to be framed around these binary choices - and therefore that means less scrutiny on the government’s actual record.

“I think it’s a record of shame when it comes to child poverty, to the educational attainment gap, to so many of the actions they have taken around the NHS.

“You can either go back to the old arguments, you can carry on fighting with each other. It’s people across this country who pay the price for that. With it being a pandemic election, I think Scotland deserves better than that.”

Is there a big transformation or structural change to Scotland that’s possible after Covid?

Mr Sarwar again points to doing things differently, learning from the cooperation in communities during the pandemic. There is no “silver bullet” - just a “detailed, ambitious, bold, principled recovery plan”.

And he uses a similar analysis when asked if the Union is worth saving, and which party or leader could save it?

“To be honest, I wouldn’t point towards any individual or any political party, I would point to the wider British people,” he says.

“I think if you look at so much of the narrative that has taken hold, Boris isn’t Britain, and Nicola Sturgeon isn’t Scotland.

“I think much more representative of Britain are the scientists that helped develop the vaccine that is helping save lives across the country.

“Much more representative of Scotland is those frontline workers who have kept our country going, kept our country safe, taken risks with their own life in order to protect other lives.

“That’s the best of Scotland, the best of the UK, and I think it’s that spirit that’s best placed at making the arguments around protecting the UK.”

He continues: “I would contest the Tories the biggest threat to the Union because they promised to be a strong opposition - in that time they’ve given us Boris, Brexit, and things are so bad even Ruth Davidson is walked away.

“I would contest that they feeding off the division, amplifying the division for their own political gain. They want to keep us in a divisive cycle and I think that’s the big difference between us and them.

“They want to wallow in division. We want to have a national recovery. I want to pull people together. I want to warmly, with energy, with hope, with optimism, rebuild the Labour Party.

“They want to create division and fear. I think the contrast is pretty stark.”

Mr Sarwar’s defining pitch? “I’m doing things differently - I want to focus on what unites us and how we pull our country back together again.”

Postal voters now and voters on May 6 will decide how much they will unite behind Scottish Labour.