Blog: What if he had been leader for longer? The question being asked about Labour's Anas Sarwar

What if? It's one of the questions most often asked in politics. 

What if Neil Kinnock had won the 1992 UK general election? What if Alex Salmond and the SNP had won the 2014 independence referendum? What if Jeremy Hunt, not Boris Johnson had become UK Tory leader?

The most recent 'what if?' in politics north of the border is being asked about the still very new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar.

Just two month on from succeeding Richard Leonard - who was effectively forced out of the job - Sarwar has, most observers agree, already made an impact.

Credit: ITV News

The question being posed is 'what if he had taken over earlier', perhaps a year ago. Would that have changed the course of this election?

Sarwar has won good reviews for his performance in the two TV debates so far, he appears to have galvanised his demoralised party, and has a clear message ahead of the elections in May.Put slightly crudely, when he is up against Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP and Douglas Ross of the Tories, his pitch is simple: "I'm not either of those guys."

Sarwar's message is that Scotland needs to get away from the 'old politics' of division over the independence question, division he argues suits both the Nationalists and the Conservatives but not the country.

And the polls suggest that this is cutting through, to some extent. His personal ratings - among those who have heard of him - are relatively high. 

Credit: PA

And some - though not all - polls suggest Labour might, just might, overtake the Tories to move into second place in the new Holyrood parliament.

Sarwar's job is not without its challenges. Arguing for a post-pandemic recovery in areas like health, the economy and education appears to resonate with voters.

However, the Scottish Labour recovery spending plans have been criticised as lacking in detail and promising more than can be delivered without tax rises or cuts elsewhere by the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).

Worth saying that the IFS says the same about the Tory and SNP plans too, so Labour is not alone in this, but it does make it difficult for the electorate when it comes to choosing one recovery plan over another.

And when it comes to choice in Scottgish politics, no one can duck the constitutional question. Sarwar is against indyref2 in the next five year term of the Scottish parliament. Beyond that he refuses to speculate.

Credit: PA

If politics is about generating high expectations Sarwar is at least realistic. He had accepted that he will not be First Minister this time around, though he aspires to that office in five years time.

The best Labour can hope is that they do overtake the Tories (Conservatives say privately it's not going to happen because some polls over-estimate Labour) so they become the main opposition to an SNP government at Holyrood.

Fun though it may be to play the 'what if?' game, we will of course never know what might have happened if Sarwar had been leader for longer.

We will, though, know very soon how far he has been able to take his party, or indeed whether he has made any progress at all.

  • You can see my full Representing Border interview with Anas Sarwar here: