POLITICS

Who Are the Candidates To Be The Next Scottish Labour Leader?

Race will be a litmus test for the strength of Scottish Labour's left wing.

31/08/2017 16:40
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Anas Sarwar (left) with Richard Leonard 

Kezia Dugdale’s bombshell resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour Party has triggered a race for the top job north of the border. 

But who is in the running and what are their chances of success? 

After the general election brought Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of politics unexpected success in Scotland - the party now has seven MPs after facing near-annihilation in 2015 - all eyes are on who will be the candidate of the left. 

No-one has officially declared they will run, but Central Scotland MSP Richard Leonard’s candidacy is seen as “a certainty”, according to insiders, after acting leader Alex Rowley and Corbyn’s most loyal ally, Neil Findlay, ruled themselves out of the race.

But the trade union favourite is likely to face competition from shadow health minister Anas Sarwar, who will position himself as the “unity candidate”. 

Anas Sarwar

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Labour health spokesman Anas Sarwar (left) joins with demonstrators as they protest against closure of Lightburn Hospital

An experienced politician despite being just 34, Sarwar has served as MP for Glasgow Central, deputy Scottish leader and, briefly in 2014 when Johann Lamont stood down, leader.

His dad Mohammed Sarwar held the same Glasgow constituency between 1997 and 2010 and was famously the UK’s first ever Muslim MP. His son, however, was in office for just five years having been ousted by the SNP’s highly-respected Alison Thewliss in 2015. 

Sarwar co-ordinated the Scottish Labour Party’s 2015 ‘no to independence’ campaign and his pro-Union stance has never been in doubt. 

This could be both a blessing and a curse. Though there is no hint of Labour softening its position on independence, Corbyn’s recent tour of Scotland made it plain the focus is on tackling the SNP’s grip on the central belt rather than going toe to toe with Ruth Davidson’s staunchly pro-UK Conservatives.

Labour’s independence referendum campaign continues to rile the membership. Although No won, it paved the way for near-wipeout at the ballot box. Labour politicians sharing a platform with Tories was a fatal error and Sarwar will be unable to escape his role. 

The Glaswegian is thought to have made a good fist of the health brief in Holyrood, doing the SNP government real damage on a portfolio once held by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. 

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Anas Sarwar is a millionaire with a large stake in his family's cash and carry business

Already, left-wingers have raised Sarwar’s personal background as an issue. He is a millionaire, thanks to a large stake in his family’s cash and carry business - United Wholesale (Scotland) Ltd - and he sends his children to a £10,000-a-year private school. 

Both of these facts have been used, and will continue to be used, by his opponents to say he is out of step with Corbyn’s “for the many, not the few” message. 

Sarwar has made no secret of his opposition to Corbyn, however. He signed an open letter calling for Corbyn to “do the right thing” and stand down in 2016, but that was in tune with the Scottish membership at the time - more than half voted for Owen Smith when he challenged his boss. 

Sarwar, a trained dentist, has since thrown his weight behind the national party’s swing to the left, introducing Corbyn at a rally in his native Glasgow earlier this month.

He would describe himself as the unity candidate but he would, nonetheless, be seen as the continuity centrist. If he is crushed, it would indicate Scottish Labour had lurched to the left.   

Richard Leonard

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Described as an “unknown quantity” by politicos, Yorkshireman Leonard has been a trade unionist for more than two decades, but an MSP just 15 months. 

Economy spokesman for the party in Holyrood and representing Central Scotland, Leonard is well liked by his colleagues and closely associated with Campaign for Socialism, Momentum’s sister organisation in Scotland.

He helped to draft the party’s industrial strategy and has served as a TUC economist and as an advisor on the boards of several economic regeneration companies.

A former organiser for the GMB union, whose power is on the ascendancy within Labour, Leonard is also an active member of Unite and secretary of the Keir Hardie Society, of which Tony Benn’s daughter Melissa is an honorary president. 

One well placed Scottish Labour left source said: “Richard is a great thinker, party historian and industrial organiser.

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Richard Leonard during his days as an industrial organiser with the GMB, with Gary Smith, the current Scotland secretary for the union

“He marries an understanding of the party and its historical and contemporary purpose with action on the ground representing workers and now his constituents.”

Leonard, who like Sarwar was privately educated, would be the first Englishman to lead Labour in Scotland since devolution and would be strongly backed by pro-Corbyn members and unions alike. 

Johann Lamont stood down accusing UK Labour of treating Scottish Labour as a “branch office” and Dugdale won respect for refusing to allow Corbyn to undermine her authority. 

Leonard would have to use the campaign to prove he is his own man and will fight for Scotland, not simply be Corbyn’s enforcer in Edinburgh. 

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