Anas Sarwar, candidate of the right wing in the Scottish Labour Party leadership contest, has been getting a bad press. And deservedly so.
The focus of the bad news was United Wholesale (Scotland) Ltd., the Sarwar ″family firm″ (in the sense that the only shareholders in it are the Sarwar family). The lowest paid employees in the company are paid the legal minimum: the National Living Wage of £7.50 a week. This is well short of the Scottish Living Wage of £8.45 an hour, and even further away from Labour Party policy of a minimum wage of £10 an hour. The family firm could easily afford to pay the Scottish Living Wage. In recent years its annual pre-tax profits have always been in excess of £2 million.
Sarwar defended low pay in the family firm: “I don’t support a voluntary real living wage. I support a mandatory real living wage.” In other words: low pay can and will continue until government action puts an end to it. But what about a trade union campaign to win higher pay this side of a Labour government? No chance of that in United Wholesale (Scotland) — it turns out that the family firm does not recognise a trade union. The company’s law firm – there′s no money for the Living Wage, but plenty of money for lawyers – issued a statement saying that the reports of non-recognition of a trade union were “politically motivated” and that the company “declines to comment”. Sarwar himself used the defence that he has no involvement in the family firm, and that he was merely a minority shareholder (one of just four – with a share package worth £4.8m). Has he never heard of the concept of “ethical investment”? Sarwar had in fact received £20,000 a year in dividends from his shares over a period of 13 years, until his re-election to Holyrood last year. But at one time or another surely all of us have overlooked the odd £20,000?
The media focus on the Sarwar family firm did, however, have a silver lining. It completely pushed into the background the fact that Sarwar spends £10,000 a year to send his son to a private school By the end of the week Sarwar decided to cut his (political) losses by placing his shares into a “discretionary trust”, to be accessed by his children on reaching adulthood. This must have been a bitter blow to Sarwar’s supporters who had spent the week loyally arguing that there was nothing untoward about a candidate for leader having £4.8m in shares in a company which failed to pay the Scottish Living Wage and failed to recognise a trade union. In fact, they had gone even further, by accusing acting leader Alex Rowley of using “dirty tricks” against Sarwar.
Rowley had attacked the SNP in Holyrood for siding with “the millionaires rather than the millions” in deciding its tax policies. Sturgeon responded that it was unfair of Rowley “to personalise this debate by bringing Anas Sarwar into it.” The previous day Sarwar had tweeted that he was going to park his tanks on Nicola Sturgeon’s lawn. Sturgeon responded: “Could you mow the lawn while you’re there? I’ll pay you the Living Wage if you do.”
In any half-decent social-democratic party Sarwar would not even get onto the ballot paper in a leadership contest. The fact that he has done so in – with the backing of the majority of the Scottish Labour's parliamentarians – underlines how far it lags behind the Labour Party at national level. But the outcome of the leadership contest is certainly not a foregone conclusion.
Richard Leonard is winning CLP nominations and trade union nominations – including from USDAW, which has always previously backed the right-wing candidate in leadership contests. The ballot runs from 27 October to 17 November. The left has a chance of securing Leonard’s election as leader. But only if it is sufficiently organised and adequate politically to be able to defeat Sarwar’s election machine.