Tom Gordon: Four years on, Sarwar still has a baggage problem



HE was so close. If Richard Leonard had only managed to dodder on for a few more weeks, he would have become Scottish Labour’s longest serving leader in opposition.

As it was he fell just short, yet still clocked up a remarkable 1153 days of, well, almost nothing.

He has no legacy to speak of – if you discount repeated electoral disaster, humiliation, a staff exodus and a financial crisis at party HQ , that is.

Perhaps the only useful thing he has bequeathed his successor is the lowest bar an incoming leader has ever had.

The bookies’ favourite is Anas Sarwar, the Glasgow MSP who endured the soul-crushing, out-of-body experience of being beaten by the hopeless Mr Leonard in 2017.

He quickly declared his candidacy and has reeled off lists of backers who swore he can rebuild the party and put it back on the long path to power. It is slick and outwardly impressive.

 Sarwar already backed by most Scottish Labour MSPs

But it is also rooted in anxiety – part of an effort to steamroller rivals out the way to secure a coronation. After all, to lose one Scottish Labour leadership contest may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose two looks terminal.

But Central Scotland MSP Monica Lennon was not for steamrollering, and challenged him for the leadership as the candidate of the relative Left.

She is also the candidate of the constitutionally curious, saying she would never stand in the way of a referendum if that’s what people wanted, though she would promote greater devolution as a third option on the ballot rather than rerun Yes/No.

This may or may not prove a key issue over the next five weeks.

What will feature, I suspect, is all the baggage that put Labour members off Mr Sarwar the last time, despite his undoubted political skills.

A lot of memories are about to be jogged, and it’s not going to help him.

Whenever Mr Sarwar talks about equality and fairness, folk will recall he comes from extreme wealth.

 Monica Lennon says Scottish Labour should push for Devo Max not block Indyref2

The cash and carry business his family built, United Wholesale (Scotland) Ltd, caused him huge pain in 2017, not just because it didn’t take Labour’s advice on paying the living wage, but because it was responsible for Mr Sarwar trousering a small fortune in unearned income.

Company accounts showed he and his wife received more than £500,000 in dividends from the firm down the years thanks to his 23 per cent stake.

When then deputy Scottish Labour leader Alex Rowley accused the SNP of siding “with the millionaires rather than the millions” at an FMQs mid-contest, Nicola Sturgeon joked it was unfair “to personalise this debate by bringing Anas Sarwar into it”.

Mr Sarwar was under such pressure he transferred his shares, worth roughly £5m, into a trust for his children, putting them permanently beyond his personal control. Which only underlined his wealth even more.

You don’t surrender £5m in shares unless you’re cushioned in other ways. His wife, incidentally, kept her shares, entitling her to £40,000 a year in dividends since.

 Sarwar dumps shares in family firm after living wage revelations

Then, after the leadership contest, Mr Sarwar’s parliamentary register of interests revealed he’d been given £150,000 in donations towards his campaign, most of it family-linked.

There was £20,000 from mum, £43,691 from subsidiaries of the cash and carry, and £40,000 from a firm in which his brother, currently converting a former nursery school in Glasgow’s southside into a luxury home with a roof terrace, had a half share.

Not your average family whip round.

There was also £10,000 from a peer and £40,000 from a non-family firm ultimately controlled from the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.

Small wonder that when Mr Sarwar declared his candidacy at the weekend, his local MP, the SNP’s Stewart McDonald, tweeted that in him “the Tories would have a fellow millionaire ally in their campaign to decimate workers’ rights and conditions”.

In @AnasSarwar the Tories would have a fellow millionaire ally in their campaign to decimate workers’ rights and conditions.
— Stewart McDonald MP (@StewartMcDonald) January 17, 2021

Mr Sarwar’s money-soaked backstory feeds into the other great controversy that dogged him four years ago – sending his children to his old private school, Hutchesons’ Grammar.

He has already tried to head off a repeat of the row, telling the Daily Record this week: “I am not going to allow my children to become a pawn, whether it be internal critics or external critics, in terms of me fighting for Scotland’s educational institutions to be the envy of the world again.”

 Sarwar admits taking share cash from controversial family business

However it is not his children who are being judged, he is.

If a politician withdraws their children from the state school system, voters have a right to consider whether they’ve forfeited their right to opine on it, and whether they have a damn cheek saying they ought to be elected to do a better job of running it.

SNP MSPs such as Ash Denham and Joan McAlpine have also sent their kids private. But they have not been let anywhere near the education brief.

If Mr Sarwar was leader, it would be a key part of his job to quiz the First Minister on schools, and he would walk onto a fist every time.

The school issue adds to the aura of entitlement around Mr Sarwar, who in 2010 breezed into the Westminster seat previously held by his father, the former Glasgow MP Mohammad Sarwar, now the Governor of Punjab.

His five years in the Commons were less than memorable, he lost to the SNP in 2015, then moved to Holyrood.

Indeed, the impression is that his whole career in politics has been one long tiresome wait to become leader.

 Sarwar £40,000 leadership donation linked to tax haven

So what to do? In the 2016 Holyrood election, the leaked Panama Papers, showing how tax havens enriched political elites, prompted Holyrood’s leaders to publish their tax returns.

Then Labour leader Kezia Dugdale led the way and the others followed.

“There is an obligation on all of us who seek to serve the public to be transparent,” she said.

Mr Sarwar could do the same now – before Ms Lennon beats him too it.

That way he might shake off the pampered millionaire tag the SNP are keen to hang on him. It would also put Nicola Sturgeon on the spot.

Five years ago, she “committed to publishing her tax return annually, when it is submitted, for as long as she is First Minister”, but hasn’t delivered.

If Mr Sarwar can extract the returns now, and look less loaded than the First Minister, some of that baggage might become less of a burden.


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