LABOUR must face up to its “relevance problem” and strap in for a long-term rebuilding project – one of the two candidates vying for the Scottish party’s top job has insisted.

Anas Sarwar has called for his party to be honest with members and voters and acknowledge there is no “quick fix” to turn around Scottish Labour’s fortunes at the polls.

He has also warned that the Scottish party must get its act together to ensure that any resurgence in the party’s popularity spearheaded by Keir Starmer’s leadership south of the border is not held back by failures in Scotland “being the drag on the ticket”.

Sarwar, who is taking on the party’s health spokesperson Monica Lennon to replace Richard Leonard and face the daunting prospect of guiding Labour into May’s Holyrood election has admitted the timeline is far from ideal, stressing that “all we can do is try and make the best out of a bad situation”.

READ MORE: Anas Sarwar: Holyrood must focus on Covid not the constitution

The party’s constitution spokesperson has warned that Scottish Labour has failed to overcome “a relevance problem” that has been hanging over it since the last Holyrood election where it came third behind both the SNP and Conservatives.

He said: “We do have an issue around relevance. I think the Labour party has looked too inwards in recent times. "

We just need to be straight. There’s no point pretending that we’re in a better place than we’re in.

“There’s no point pretending we’re on the cusp of a Labour government, there’s no point pretending that there aren’t big structural issues that we have to address as a political party, there’s no point pretending that there aren’t big policy issues that we need to fundamentally confront as a political party and as a country.”

Critics have claimed that Scottish Labour’s problems with the public emerged because it has consistently opposed independence – but Sarwar insists the lack of a firm stance has been a stumbling block.

READ MORE: Richard Leonard quits as Scottish Labour leader

He said: “The idea that we have lost support because we have been too clear on our constitutional position, I think is quite laughable.

“What I think wins back people who are on both sides of the argument is to say whatever your view on independence, whether you are a Yes or you are a No, coming through Covid, what are the things that we agree on and are united on and let’s focus on them.”

Sarwar said he understands why Nicola Sturgeon is “allowing this divisiveness to continue” around independence – claiming she is pressing for a referendum “because of what’s happening within her own political party”, pointing to internal pressure for her to deliver independence from SNP activists.

HeraldScotland: First Minister Nicola SturgeonFirst Minister Nicola Sturgeon

He added: “Honestly, I would say to people – live in the real world where lives and livelihoods are at risk, where our collective energy right now has to be on confronting a pandemic and saving people’s lives and getting our economy back on track.

“I’m not going to commentate about what happens after May, which too many Labour figures are currently doing. Instead, I want us to realise that we are not spectators, we’re participants and I want us to influence what happens in May and that’s why my platform in this contest and (the one) I want to take to wider Scotland is to say we can do things differently.”

Sarwar bluntly said “I'm not going to do a Jo Swinson” and tell the public he is set to become the first minister in May, warning that Scottish Labour is “fighting for our survival” - but has earmarked the 2026 Holyrood election as a target to turn things around.

READ MORE: Former MSP to chair Anas Sarwar's Scottish Labour leadership bid

He added: “This is a long-term project to rebuild the party. The first part of that project is to survive, become relevant, become a credible opposition and then hopefully be in a position to return a Labour government and a Labour first minister in the election that follows.

“The hard work has to start now – we're already behind and we have to play catch up.”

The 37-year-old has also suggested that as well as appealing to SNP voters who are not dead-set on independence, his party must reach out to those who “have supported the Tories because they think the Labour party hasn’t been a credible opposition”.

He added: “This country has got to be more than this binary choice – it's got to be about how we challenge inequality and challenge injustice and challenge poverty, and we’re not getting that from the SNP and the Tories.

“They can’t credibly bring our country back together again - we can, but we can only preach unity if we are demonstrating unity ourselves.

HeraldScotland: Anas Sarwar doesn't want a return of pre-Covid independence argumentsAnas Sarwar doesn't want a return of pre-Covid independence arguments

“We don’t have to go back to those pre-Covid arguments. Instead, we can try and bring our country back together again and heal the wounds of our country and that’s what I want to do.”

The leadership hopeful’s father, Mohammad Sarwar, was the UK’s first Muslim MP when he represented Glasgow Govan and Glasgow Central from 1997 to 2005.

But Sarwar said that in his younger days, the thought of following in his father’s footsteps was “not something that appealed to me in the slightest”.

READ MORE: Former Labour adviser declares Scottish independence support

He added: “In actual fact, I think large parts of the circumstances around my upbringing and my father being in politics put me off politics rather than encouraged me towards politics.” But the former NHS dentist added that he realised “politics fundamentally is what changes people’s lives”.

He added: “That’s why I’ m in politics – to actually change the world.”

Sarwar, who has frequently faced prejudice and abuse and rallied against hate, has warned that “some of the way we conduct our politics is quite frankly embarrassing and lets the country down”, warning that all parties must take responsibility.

He added that the political bubble is “consumed by division”, adding that “how we conduct our politics needs to completely change” with people being able to “pick and choose when we’re going to call our prejudice and hate”, based on someone’s political beliefs.

He said: “We can be better than this, our country is better than this – sadly, our politicians haven’t been.”

Sarwar said that the UK party’s new leader was showing “a professional approach” to leadership and “looking like a credible alternative to Boris Johnson.

HeraldScotland: UK Labour leader Keir StarmerUK Labour leader Keir Starmer

But he stressed that Sir Keir “will be in no doubt” that the new leader of Scottish Labour “decides what the Labour party’s position should be in relation to what matters to Scotland”.

Sarwar added: “I want us to be an autonomous political party and I want us to not just say we’re putting Scotland first but demonstrate we’re putting Scotland first. At the same time, I will tell Keir when he’s getting it wrong.

“What I don’t want us to be in a situation of the Labour party starts to get its act together across the UK, looks like it’s a credible government in waiting, looks like it has a chance of winning an election or returning a Labour prime minister but Scotland ends up being the drag on the ticket.”