ANAS Sarwar has been accused of preparing to “jump into bed with the Tories” just two days after he became the new Scottish Labour leader.

The Glasgow MSP will head his party’s Holyrood election fight after defeating Monica Lennon in the race to succeed Richard Leonard.

Yesterday he backed a group of councillors suspended until 2022 for defying Kezia Dugdale to form a coalition with the Conservatives.

The sanction meted out to the “Aberdeen Nine” by UK Labour’s disciplinary panel runs until next year’s local elections. The group is still part of that Tory coalition, along with independents. Appearing on BBC Radio Scotland yesterday, Sarwar praised them for “doing a good job” and said their suspension is “far from acceptable” and down to a “political decision”.

It’s a move the SNP say “signals intent” for a “Unionist pact” with the Tories.

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Responding, SNP councillor Jackie Dunbar, who is running for the Aberdeen Donside seat in the Scottish Parliament elections, said: “Sarwar has only been in the job for two days and he’s already indicated Labour are looking to jump back into bed with the Tories in a Unionist pact. Scottish Labour can’t be trusted.”

The National: Tory MSP Douglas Ross. Photo: Gordon Terris/The Herald.

In January, Sarwar refused a public approach by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross to join him in a “Unionist coalition”, hitting out at child poverty. But Dunbar said: “Labour and the Tories have worked hand in hand in Aberdeen for years now. Anas Sarwar might talk a good game when it comes to tackling Westminster austerity, but he can’t be taken seriously if he welcomes these Tory supporting councillors back into the fold.”

The comments come after Sarwar dismissed public interest in a second independence referendum.

The latest Ipsos MORI poll found the constitutional question is seen as the most important by supporters of all three of Scotland’s biggest political parties.

Overall, 44% of people said it will be key to their vote, followed by education (32%), healthcare and the NHS (25%), and coronavirus (20%).

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But Sarwar told Radio Scotland’s Gary Robertson that people “beyond the Twitter bubble” aren’t thinking about the matter. Dismissing the need to “obsess about constitutional politics or a referendum”, he stated: “I don’t think that people are sitting at home right now worried about the date of a referendum campaign.

“I think what people are worried about is keeping their loved ones safe, when are they going to get a vaccine? I think they’re worried about their child’s education and mental health. They’re worried about if and when they’ll return back to work.

“These are the big issues I think people are worried about right now.”

Sarwar also yesterday unveiled his “campaign cabinet” as he works to “rebuild the Labour Party” and win as many seats as possible despite polling suggesting Scottish Labour is in a “difficult place”.

It includes Lennon as economy and fair work spokeswoman, with deputy leader Jackie Baillie on health, social care and inequalities and Dundee councillor Michael Marra – also a Holyrood candidate – leading on education.

Leonard, who stepped down as party leader in January “didn’t feel that he wanted to come back on the front bench”, Sarwar told the media.

He stated: “A key part of our manifesto is going to be around how we reshape and rebuild our economy to take on the structural inequalities in our society.

“One of those structural inequalities that exist in our societies is around the unfairness for women.

“That has been further exacerbated and highlighted by this pandemic and that’s one of the reasons why I want Monica Lennon to do that role, because I want this to be a significant part of our election campaign.”

He went on: “I want to be honest and upfront with people; if you look at where we are in the polls, we are in a difficult place.

“Of course, I am working to win as many seats as we can in May. Of course, I would love for us to win the election, but I’m also a realist about where we are right now. The pathway that I want to take the Labour Party is its survival to relevance to credible opposition to a credible alternative.

“I think that’s a pathway that’s going to probably take longer than 10 weeks, but it’s a pathway that we can deliver on over the next five years.

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“So I do want us to be a credible opposition and I do think we can stop an SNP majority.”

On the issue of tactical voting by members of the public, Sarwar – who was also set to address the parliamentary Labour Party last night – commented: “I think there is going to be lots of political parties talking a lot about tactical voting over the next 10 weeks, and what my appeal to people would be is rather than tactical voting, vote for what you think is in the best interest for our country.

“And if you think the best interests of our country is to focus on what unites us, not what divides us, I want you to vote Labour.”

On his message to the parliamentary Labour Party, he stated: “I am not going to be shy about what I say to them, and will be quite robust in what I think they need to hear, and what they need to understand about Scotland, and about the Scottish Labour Party.”

During the BBC Radio Scotland interview, Sarwar was also asked about the reliance by Aberdeen Labour councillors on the votes of disgraced former Tory Provost Alan Donnelly, a convicted sex offender whose suspension by the Standards Commission will be lifted this week. Sarwar said: “The Labour Party can’t decide how he votes and how he doesn’t vote in the council chamber, he doesn’t sound like he’s the type of person who should even be a councillor.”