Scottish Labour’s leader faces uphill task to drive SNP off course | Scotland

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Even with her face mask on, Mhairi Hunter is spotted by Asif, a business graduate rushing past with a shopping bag. “You’re that SNP councillor,” he shouts, before tracking back to offer an impassioned one-man party political broadcast in support of the Scottish National party.

The focus of his wrath is Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour party leader, who is fighting Nicola Sturgeon for the Holyrood constituency of Glasgow Southern, one of Scotland’s most ethnically diverse areas. Sarwar grew up nearby and his predecessors once took it for granted that Punjabi Glaswegians like Asif and his parents would vote Labour. But no more.

Asif, like thousands of other second- and third-generation Pakistani-heritage Scots, have switched allegiance, backing the SNP and frequently independence. They now self-identify as Scottish, not British. And Asif has a very particular gripe with Labour.

“What I’m saying, right: Anas Sarwar is telling everybody, ‘Protect the NHS, protect the NHS,’ but I think he’s forgotten what happened in 2009 [after the banking crash] when his party fucked everybody up. My generation couldn’t get jobs,” Asif said.

Anas Sarwar: ‘I would always describe myself as a Scot first, but what I think the SNP has successfully done is to capture that identity.’ Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

“Half of us are in low-paid work; we’re in our 30s now. The SNP gave free education to myself. I would never have got to uni; the SNP gave me that. I’ve got a good job now.” His mother, once a Labour voter, has switched too. “My mum loves Nicola Sturgeon. She adores her.”

That change partly explains why Sturgeon increased her majority in 2016 with 61% of the vote, and a 9,600-vote margin over Labour. A large minority of Glasgow Southern’s population are Pakistani and Muslim, and Sarwar acknowledges that this is a problem for him, and for Labour.

“I think there’s a whole generation of younger people who haven’t lived in what they would regard as a stable United Kingdom, whether it’s Brexit or anything else. They’ve also grown up in a Scotland probably where it has felt like there is only one political party [the SNP] on the pitch,” he said.

“I’m a proud Scot. I would always describe myself as a Scot first, but what I think the SNP has successfully done is to capture that identity. I don’t think we have been able to compete with that in the same way.”

It is the first time in British politics that two main party leaders have contested the same seat. Given the scale of Sturgeon’s majority and her stellar popularity ratings among voters, Sarwar’s decision to do so is both bold and risky. Although he is certain to win a Holyrood seat on the regional top-up list, and certain to lose in Glasgow Southern, contesting the seat is part of Sarwar’s strategy to reverse 20 years of near-continuous decline in Scottish Labour support, one step at a time.

Walking through Pollokshields, past the flat where he first lived as a child, and the halal butchers and pizzeria he still uses, Sarwar is feted by local Punjabi Scots, who constantly interrupt him for selfies and catch-up chats. Numerous shops have Scottish Labour posters in their windows.

His father, Mohammad Sarwar, now the governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, was elected the UK’s first Muslim MP in the former, contiguous Westminster seat of Glasgow Govan in 1997; Anas Sarwar held the successor Commons seat of Glasgow Central from 2010 before losing it in the SNP avalanche of 2015, when Sturgeon’s party won 56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats.

Labour voters ask him for posters. John Connolly, a retired IT professional who now volunteers at a local food bank, describes Sarwar “as a breath of fresh air”. Sturgeon, he says, is “a fabulous spokesperson, but I actually look at her policies: she’s never actually achieved any of her targets”.

John Connolly
John Connolly, a retired IT professional who now volunteers at a local food bank, describes Sarwar ‘as a breath of fresh air’ Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The seat encompasses the handsome detached sandstone homes of Maxwell Park and the once dilapidated tenements of Govanhill, now populated by east European, Roma and Pakistani migrants, and a new crowd: young hipsters and community activists opening artisan coffee shops, refugee women’s cafes and delicatessens on Victoria Road.

Once a down-at-heel thoroughfare, it now has expensive segregated cycle lanes and pedestrian zones installed. Tenement windows urge local people to vote Green, warning that “Black Lives Matter” and calling for an end to the state persecution of asylum seekers.

Kati Karki
Kati Karki will enthusiastically vote Green on the regional list, and reluctantly for Sturgeon on the constituency vote Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Kati Karki, a 38-year-old forestry student, from Finland, is a local resident who plans to split her vote on 6 May. She will enthusiastically vote Green on the regional list, and reluctantly for Sturgeon on the constituency vote. And that, she says, is because independence makes sense to her.

“It’s a complicated thing, of course – what does it mean to be independent? But obviously it would be great to have more power over your taxes and your spending; there’s no reason why there couldn’t be a better way for people in this area.”

The SNP is finding this contest tougher than it might have been, Hunter admits. Several senior local Asian SNP activists – including Abdul Majid, the then convener of Scots Asians for Independence – defected to Alex Salmond’s hardline pro-independence party Alba in April. Some of Alba’s wilder supporters have urged its voters to back Sarwar with their constituency vote, and Alba on the list, to take revenge on Sturgeon for the SNP’s perceived harrying of Salmond.

Transylvania Cafe
The Transylvania Cafe and deli. Among the once dilapidated tenements of Govanhill, coffee shops are opening Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Sarwar’s name recognition and status will also pull some voters away, and in a constituency known for its low turnouts (48% and 43% in the last two elections), Hunter worries that the Covid crisis, and the assumption Sturgeon will comfortably win the seat, could further suppress voter numbers.

“We’re going to have to work really hard to get people out to vote,” Hunter said. “But we’ve been going round speaking to our supporters, and we haven’t found a lot of people moving away. There will be some, of course.”

For her part, with 30 years’ experience contesting constituency elections, Sturgeon insists she is far from complacent. “I never treat an election as if it’s in the bag or a dead-cert winner,” she told the Guardian. “Am I quietly confident? Yes. But am I taking it for granted? Absolutely not. After this call, I’m popping over to the constituency for an hour to do some door-chapping.”

The SNP’s campaign has been hit, too, by a row over dozens of library, community centre and sports centre closures proposed by Glasgow Life, the body that runs those facilities for the city’s SNP-led council. Glasgow Life has a £40m shortfall in receipts brought on by the Covid crisis.

Mhairi Hunter
SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter: ‘We’re going to have to work really hard to get people out to vote’ Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Observers sense gamesmanship – as Glasgow Life tries to force her government into a rescue deal, Sturgeon insists that many of the sites will reopen. Sarwar and Labour see a chance to raise challenging questions about the capacity of Glasgow’s SNP-run council to fight for the city’s interests with an SNP government in Edinburgh.

As he walks past Pollokshields library, its shabby, crumbling exterior shuttered and fenced off, Sarwar targets Sturgeon. “It’s all very well saying the right things, having the rhetoric and doing the selfies, but look at all these ‘Save our library’ signs. Who’s shutting the library?” he asked.

Jim Monaghan
Labour voter Jim Monaghan believes Nicola Sturgeon is a diligent constituency MSP Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

But Jim Monaghan, a Labour voter and community activist closely involved in the successful campaign to reopen Govanhill’s swimming pool as a community enterprise, believes Sturgeon is a diligent constituency MSP. The council and Scottish government have spent £35m buying and refurbishing nearly 370 once-squalid tenement flats, in collaboration with Govanhill housing association.

“I think she’s so popular because unlike what a lot of people tell you, she’s actually really involved in the community and people know her, people see her,” Monaghan said. “Sturgeon’s office and her team round about her are very good; they’re very efficient.

“Any political leader, a huge national leader, tends to get big votes in their community … People have a little bit of pride in her.”

Govanhill, once a synonym for urban decay, now feels vibrant, Monaghan said. “I’m from Cumnock [in East Ayrshire], and the idea of a few young people walking past your window late at night drunk, instead of singing some vile sectarian thing, they’re singing some Gypsy folksong in three-part harmonies. It’s just magical.”

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