‘Working people will decide this election’

Labour’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, believes that UNISON members are key to turning the page on 14 years of Tory government. By Danny Phillips

                                              Anas Sarwar © Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Alamy Stock Photo

With the general election almost upon us, and everything still to play for, it’s almost impossible to steal any politician away from the campaign trial.

Yet with less than a week to go, Anas Sarwar, Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) and leader of the Scottish Labour Party, took time out of his busy schedule to drop into UNISON Scotland’s offices in Glasgow.

He had a powerful message for the union’s members, on both sides of the border.

“UNISON members understand more than most the negative consequence of 14 years of the Tories” he says. “They see first-hand the damage done to the economy, to living standards, the spike in poverty and inequality, and the destruction of our public services.

“And, actually, they see the degradation of our political discourse, where it seems that honesty, transparency and accountability are unknown words to this Conservative government.

“And that’s why UNISON members can play a key part in deciding this election. Either we wake up on July 5th to five more years of Rishi Sunak and the Tories, with five more years of chaos, decline and division. Or, we wake up to the news that after 14 years we have we finally got rid of this rotten Tory government.

“We can elect a Labour government that will change our country for the better.”

‘An immediate injection of cash into public services’

Like the rest of the UK, Scotland is in the grip of appalling NHS waiting lists – its longest since devolution – a decline in local government, cuts in education and across public services generally.

How would Mr Sarwar see all those services revitalised under Labour?

“We need an immediate cash injection into our public services, fully funded. UNISON members will know this, because they have lived with the consequences of austerity. There will be no return to austerity. I have said that, Keir Starmer has said that, Rachel Reeves has said that and it is in black and white in our manifesto in Scotland and the UK.

“There are so many things we need to do UK-wide to get our public life back on track – with macroeconomics and economic stability being key parts of that, but also a fair tax regime, and putting more money into our public services.

“We will scrap the non-dom tax loopholes to get more money into our NHS – funding 160,000 appointments a year in Scotland; we will clamp down on tax avoidance to put more money into our public services; we will put a windfall tax on the oil and gas giants who are making record profits, which helps us bring down energy bills and create more jobs across the country in green energy.

“We will appoint a COVID corruption commissioner, whose job will be to get our money back. Let’s not forget that when UNISON members were working on the frontline during this pandemic, this Tory government was handing out COVID contracts to their friends.”

Change in Scotland

As UNISON members in Scotland will know, local government, schools, hospitals, social care and other areas of public services are devolved.

That’s why, Mr Sarwar says, Scotland requires “a two-stage process for change,” the first stage being this week’s general election, the second Labour winning the 2026 Scottish Parliament election.

“Between those elections, we will set out more detail about what change looks like in Scotland,” he says. “Reforming the NHS to make it fit for the future, making sure more resources go into the classroom to confront the challenges facing our young people, a skills system to maximise people’s potential as well as support our economy, and create more and better paid jobs and improve working conditions here in Scotland. We are absolutely determined to deliver that.”

Anas Sarwar speaking in front of a podium with the words 'The change Scotland needs'

                                       Scottish Labour Party conference 2023 © Terry Murden / Alamy

On jobs, Mr Sarwar turns to one of Labour’s headline commitments. “One of the first things Labour would do is deliver the New Deal for Working People, which has been designed in partnership with our trade union movement and led by Angela Rayner, our deputy leader across the UK.”

Among the New Deal’s key aims are to end fire and rehire and outlaw zero-hour contracts. Mr Sarwar adds that he has “lost count of the number of people I have met who have lost out on paternity or maternity leave, because they hadn’t been with their current employer for long enough”, and talks of the rise of in-work poverty and the tragedy of people in work but still having to use food banks.

To combat all of this, “Our New Deal will give people employment rights from day one. We will make sure the living wage in name becomes the living wage in reality. We will reform how the low pay commission operates, to make sure it considers the cost of living when setting our living wage rate.

“This means hundreds of thousands of people will get a pay rise, lifting families and children out of poverty. I know UNISON members will understand the importance of making work pay”.

Further and faster

The election campaign has seen a great deal of heated debate – with claim and counter claim from the parties – over how they would fund their campaign promises. Mr Sarwar is braver than most, hinting at the height of his party’s genuine ambition.

“I recognise we have a massive mount of work to do. We have only put promises in our manifesto that we can keep. And we have only made spending commitments that we know the country can afford right now.

“But I don’t want anyone to be under any illusion that this is the height of our ambition – it’s not. If we can get growth back into our economy and we can stop the chaos, then I want us to go even further and faster and that will transform the lives of working people.

“We can put fair work, dignity, respect and our public services front and centre, because that is what politics is meant to be about – public service, not politicians thinking about themselves and their political parties.”

Anas Sarwar speaking to customers in a supermarket

                                                                                              .         © Scottish Labour Party

Mr Sarwar originally worked as a dentist, before being elected as an MP for Glasgow Central in 2010, succeeding his retiring father. He remained an MP until 2015, then in 2016 was elected to the Scottish Parliament for the Glasgow region. He’s led Scottish Labour since 2021.

I ask him what advice he would give any new Labour MP going into Parliament.

“Not a single vote has been won and not a single MP has been elected yet. We still have work to do,” he stresses, first. “But what I would say is that there something beyond politics. The first service of an MP is to their constituents and their country.

“I hope I have demonstrated this over the past three years, since taking on the leadership, that we have worked with humility, hard work and energy. I hope we have campaigned in this election with humility, hard work and energy. And if any of our candidates get the good fortune to get elected, and none of them have yet, but if they do, I want them to work with humility, hard work and energy.

“They have to respect and return the trust that has been given to them by voters. This project is not about getting rid of the Tories, or even electing a Labour government, this is about changing our country and improving outcomes for working people. And that is what we are determined to do.”

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