Scottish Labour picks Muslim leader in a first for UK politics

Glasgow-born Anas Sarwar is the son of the governor of Pakistan's Punjab region

New Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar is the first minority ethnic leader of a major political party in the UK. Getty
New Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar is the first minority ethnic leader of a major political party in the UK. Getty

The son of the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab region has been named as the first Muslim and member of an ethnic minority to lead a major political party in the UK.

Anas Sarwar won the race to take charge of Scottish Labour on Saturday, before an election for the country's devolved parliament in May.

Mr Sarwar, a Glasgow member of the Scottish Parliament and former dentist, was selected after beating fellow MSP Monica Lennon by 57.6 per cent of the vote to 42.4 per cent.

His father, Mohammed, was the first Muslim MP. He was elected to the Glasgow Central constituency for the Westminster Parliament in 1997.

Mohammed Sarwar retired from the House of Commons in 2010 and relinquished his British citizenship in 2013 to run as governor of Punjab – a largely ceremonial role – for the Pakistan Muslim League, the party of the-then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

He resigned in 2015 to join Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, now chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan, and became the governor of Punjab again in August 2018.

His son replaces Richard Leonard, who quit as leader of Scottish Labour in January.

Mr Leonard said it was in the best interests of the party for him to stand down before the election.

Opposition Labour's fortunes have flagged in Scotland, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) the dominant force. Labour has 23 out of 129 seats in parliament.

"I want to say directly to the people of Scotland – I know Labour has a lot of work to do to win back your trust because if we're brutally honest you haven't had the Scottish Labour party you deserve," said Mr Sarwar, who was born in Glasgow in 1983.

Mr Sarwar said his first memory of politics was a threat made against his mother.

He recalled opening a hand-delivered envelope at his childhood home in 1997 to see a mocked-up picture of his mother with a gun to her head and a message that said: “Bang, bang, that’s all it takes.”

Despite racist threats and abuse, Mr Sarwar left his job as a dentist in 2010 to enter the world of politics, winning the same Westminster seat as his father in an election in which Labour lost power after 13 years to a coalition of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.

In 2015, he lost his seat to the SNP's Alison Thewliss as the party swept Scotland, winning all but one of the country's constituencies.

SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wants a strong showing from her party in the election on May 6 to hand her a mandate to hold a second referendum on independence – something UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he would not approve.

Opinion polls indicate a majority of people in Scotland back a second referendum.

But the SNP is in the midst of a bitter row between Ms Sturgeon and her predecessor Alex Salmond that could eventually put pressure on her to resign and threatens to damage the independence movement.

Updated: February 28, 2021 10:23 PM

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