A HEAD-TO-HEAD race between Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon began last night to become the new Scottish Labour leader.

Sarwar declared his intention to stand on Saturday night while Lennon announced she was putting her name forward as The National went to press, ahead of a midnight deadline. She tweeted: “Following discussions with party members, I have decided to put my name forward to lead the Scottish Labour Party.

“Our members deserve to have their say about the best way to take forward our vision for a fairer and more equal Scotland. I look forward to being considered. “ The party’s health spokeswoman has won plaudits across Parliament for her campaign on period poverty, successfully bringing in legislation to provide free sanitary products.

Lennon had earlier been urged to stand by several figures in the party including former MP Ged Killen.

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Sarwar, the Glasgow MSP and a former deputy leader, confirmed his bid to succeed Richard Leonard as the next Scottish Labour leader.

The Glasgow MSP used an article for the Observer online to set out his stall in the leadership race, which was triggered by Leonard’s resignation on Thursday.

Late on Saturday night, he tweeted to say the country “needs political leadership that will bring people together” and that he wants “to rebuild Scottish Labour, and then rebuild Scotland”.

In his column, Sarwar wrote: “Over the past few years, I have gained a new perspective on our politics and realised that the things we argue about mean little to people’s lives.

“We spend too much time highlighting our differences, rather than focusing on what unites us.

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“I firmly believe we cannot go back to society as it was before the pandemic – insecure work, hollowed-out public services, an underfunded health service, and the constant focus on another independence referendum when there’s far more important things we need to be dealing with.”

The 37-year-old also discussed facing racism and fighting prejudice in the article, adding: “Speaking out against the racism I’ve faced was the hardest thing I’ve done in politics.

“My family faced death threats as a result. But I’ve used that experience to spend my time in our communities working on what unites us and bringing people together – I have listened and I have learnt.

“I want to bring that same approach to our Labour movement so that we can rebuild our party and rebuild our country.”

Sarwar was beaten by Leonard in the party’s 2017 leadership election, following a three month long bitter contest in which Leonard was given the support of influential trade unions, such as Unite.

After news broke of Leonard’s resignation, Sarwar paid tribute to his former boss, saying: “Richard has led our party through one of the most difficult times in our history.

“He is Labour to his core, and we are all grateful for his service.”

Earlier on Saturday the party’s executive agreed to a condensed timescale for any contest with the Holyrood elections less than four months away.

Candidates had until midnight last night to declare their intention to run and will require support from at least four of the party’s MSPs or its sole Scottish MP by midday on Tuesday to be formally nominated.

Scottish Labour’s chair Cara Hilton said: “The Scottish Executive Committee today agreed that a new leader of the Scottish Labour Party will be elected by a ballot of party members and affiliated trades union members in February.

“The new leader will be announced on February 27 and will lead Scottish Labour into the Scottish Parliament election with a fresh energy to carry Labour’s message and take the fight to the Tories and the SNP.”

The next leader will be the tenth Labour has had since devolution and the fifth since the independence referendum in 2014.

Leonard announced his resignation last Thursday saying that the speculation about his position as leader had become a distraction to the party’s ability to get its message across ahead of the vital Scottish Parliament elections. Reports later claimed UK party leader Sir Keir Starmer had made clear he did not have confidence in Leonard as the Scottish Labour chief during a Zoom call with senior party figures and potential donors the previous evening.

Leonard saw off an attempted coup by Labour MSPs in September and insisted he would lead the party into the election, expected to be a landmark in Scottish history as the SNP seek a fourth term in government and a vote on the right to hold an independence referendum.

Leonard’s resignation was attacked by figures on the left of the party who said he had been undermined. After his resignation, Neil Findlay said: “Looks like those who have led a three year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick.”