Anas Sarwar has predicted he can become First Minister in five years if he wins the Scottish Labour leadership contest.

The Glasgow MSP believes securing second place at May’s Holyrood election would be a “staging post” to Labour entering Government in 2026.

In an interview with the Record, Sarwar also said it would be “huge moment for Scotland” if a Muslim became leader of a political party.

Scottish Politician Anas Sarwar

Sarwar is likely to go head-to-head with health spokesperson Monica Lennon after Richard Leonard’s shock resignation.

The former deputy leader is an elections veteran despite only being 37.

He lost his Westminster seat in 2015 and was defeated by Leonard for the Scottish leadership in 2017.

This defeat came after a bruising battle in which his family’s decision to use a private school for their children came under the spotlight.

Three years on, he refers to the two losses as the “most painful experiences of my career”.

He said: “I have actually learned a lot about how I conduct myself. And I genuinely think those defeats have made me a better politician and a better human being, and a better father.”

He contrasts past battles with recent campaigns holding the local health board to account and fighting Islamophobia: “Some of the things we used to fight about, whether that was within our own political party, or between political parties, actually pales into significance compared to the real challenges that are happening in our communities.”

If elected leader, Sarwar would become the first MSP from a black and minority ethnic (BAME) background to lead a political party.

He said: “I think it would be a huge moment for Scotland, for the UK, and actually probably for people from a south Asian background in most parts of the world.”

With Scottish Labour in third place at Holyrood and trailing in the polls, he is realistic about his party’s chances in May: “If we are being honest with ourselves, we’ve got to accept that Scottish Labour is in a really difficult place. The polls tell us that.

“There is a massive job to be done, and that’s not going to be fixed by one person, or simply by changing the leader. I think that requires new people, it requires new ideas, it requires fresh thinking, a fresh vision for Scotland, and time.”

He says the focus of the campaign has to be to “stop an SNP majority” and make covid recovery the priority of the next five years: “If we rebuild our party, if we do reconnect with wider Scotland, if we do come up with fresh ideas and present a fresh vision for Scotland, then I do think that we can have a Labour First Minister, if not in this election then the election that follows.”

The Tories took second place at the last Holyrood election and he says taking it back would be a gain: “Delivering Labour as the primary opposition in Scotland I think would be great progress towards a staging post of having a Labour Government at the next election.”

On indyref2, Sarwar will not be softening Labour’s opposition to a referendum: “I do not support an independence referendum in the next Parliament. I support the next Parliament being a covid recovery Parliament.”

Asked how he would help win back independence supporters who vote SNP, he said: “We don’t credibly win people back if we pretend to be something we are not. I don’t think there’s a quick fix in terms of a policy position that automatically gets us rising up in the polls again.

“We have got to be true to ourselves, we’ve got to be true to our principles, we’ve got to say what we believe and why we believe it and hope to win people back on that argument.”

On criticism of the private school decision, he said it was a “fair question” and one he would not “shy away” from: “I completely understand the critics, but I am Labour. I live and breathe Labour.”

Asked if it could be a problem for him if he raised education issues at First Minister’s Questions, he replied: “I am not going to allow my children to become a pawn, whether it be internal critics or external critics, in terms of me fighting for Scotland’s educational institutions to be the envy of the world again.”

Labour at a UK level have still not resolved the case after nearly three years.

Sarwar said: “Our complaints system is not fit for purpose. Clearly that is unacceptable. I stand in solidarity with Humza Yousaf.”

The disciplinary side rests with the UK party. Does he believe Scottish Labour have control of these issues? “I think there is undoubtedly a case for it.”

Back to the contest, Sarwar says Scottish Labour has lost its way, but he believes he can restore his party’s fortunes:

“We have got to be a political party that looks like the future, that sounds like the future, that sounds like it has a plan and vision for the future.”