Anas Sarwar calls for Labour to avoid civil war in leader contest

Scottish Labour leadership contender Anas Sarwar yesterday urged the party not to descend into civil war ahead of the contest to chose a successor to Kezia Dugdale.
Labour MSP Anas Sarwar. Picture: John DevlinLabour MSP Anas Sarwar. Picture: John Devlin
Labour MSP Anas Sarwar. Picture: John Devlin

Speaking as the party’s MSPs met for the first time since Ms Dugdale announced her resignation earlier this week, the Labour front-bencher said the forthcoming leadership election should be conducted in a courteous and civil manner.

Mr Sarwar made his plea ahead of an election that is almost certain to see him pitched as the moderate candidate against the left-winger Richard Leonard.

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And his remarks will be seen as an attempt to guard against the acrimony that has characterised recent party leadership battles involving Jeremy Corbyn, as well as the divisions within the Scottish party.

Mr Sarwar was speaking at a private meeting held in an Edinburgh hotel and follows suggestions that Ms Dugdale was driven from her job by acolytes of Mr Corbyn in the Scottish party.

Ms Dugdale denied that she was the victim of a Corbynite coup when she announced her departure, but there is no doubt that she felt undermined by criticisms of her leadership coming from the left of the party.

Yesterday’s “away day” for Labour MSPs, MPs and council leaders at the MacDonald Hotel had been arranged long before Ms Dugdale resigned. The event was originally organised to discuss policy, but the departure of Ms Dugdale dominated discussions. Ms Dugdale did not attend.

Mr Sarwar has yet to declare he is standing for the leadership, but he is understood to have been in deep discussions with colleagues about his bid and will be anxious to install himself as the front-runner.

After yesterday’s meeting Labour insiders said Mr ­Sarwar had called for the contest to be held in a “comradely fashion”. “Anas spoke about unity,” said one individual who was at the meeting. Another said: “He basically said we had to be opponents rather than enemies. Our enemies are the SNP and the Tories.”

This theme was picked up by others at the meeting including Mr Leonard and Neil Findlay, a prominent Corbyn supporter who has ruled himself out of the contest.

“Neil was very clear that people had to behave,” said an insider. “And it was also made clear that supporters of the candidates and those working for the candidates should behave in the same way.”

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As the favoured candidate of the moderate faction of the party, there have already been suggestions Mr Sarwar may face a backlash from the left. His failure to support Mr Corbyn in the past, the fact his children go to private school and his personal wealth have been cited as factors that will count against him when it comes to attracting support from the socialist wing. Mr Sarwar supported Owen Smith in the UK Labour leadership election and signed an open letter last year calling on Mr Corbyn to consider his position.

Mr Leonard also spoke at the meeting, which recommended that nine weeks should be set aside to conduct the contest. If that timetable is rubber stamped at a meeting of the Scottish Executive Committee on 9 September, then it looks as if a leader will be chosen at the beginning of November.

Mr Leonard – who is also yet to officially declare his candidacy – said: “I am still considering my options, still speaking to people but I haven’t made a final decision yet.”

Mr Sarwar said he was speaking to colleagues and family about his next move.

He added: “This is a leadership contest none of us wanted. I think all of us want to thank Kez Dugdale for the tremendous contribution and sacrifice she has made for our party.”