This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
You’ll lose the election on day one of the campaign, unless you change your position on trans rights.” That was the stark warning issued to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer by a key adviser earlier this month. Focus groups and polling had led the adviser to put it in such blunt terms. Two years ago, he promised Labour would introduce self-ID, but on Thursday, Starmer tacked. “I think that if we reflect on what’s happened in Scotland, the lesson I take from that is that if you’re going to make reforms, you have to carry the public with you.”
Like most politicians and indeed media commentators, Starmer has found this issue an extremely difficult one. When asked by my LBC colleague Nick Ferrari, “What is a woman?” last year, the Labour leader flailed around and gave an unconvincing answer. Mumsnet was besieged by outraged mothers saying they wouldn’t vote Labour if he didn’t unequivocally stand by women’s rights.
His colleague Wes Streeting got it right when he answered the same question: “Men have penises, women have vaginas, here ends my biology lesson.” He then added: “That doesn’t mean, by the way, that there aren’t people who transition to other genders because they experience gender dysphoria, and we should acknowledge that and conduct the debate in a respectful way that respects those people’s rights and dignity.”
That, surely, is where most reasonable people stand, whether on the Left or the Right. But we are called "Terfs" by the more intolerant transgender-rights activists. This stands for Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminist. In other words, as gay men, Streeting and I are classed as bigots because we don’t follow the uncompromising agenda of allowing anyone to self-identify with no restrictions. Nothing could be further from the truth, but just by writing this article I know my Twitter timeline will probably be unreadable for the next few days.
Not all trans people agree with the Gender Recognition Bill, which has done so much to rip the SNP asunder. Indeed, a transgender woman from the Shetland Isles phoned into my SNP leadership debate a week ago to make that point, and to ask the three candidates how many trans people they had actually spoken to before arriving at a position on self-ID.
Last weekend, in a little noted decision, the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference passed a motion which urged anyone in the party who didn’t subscribe to full self ID and the wider trans agenda to leave the party. How very “liberal” of them.*
The whole issue is toxic for politicians of all parties. No wonder few politicians want to put their heads above the parapet. Penny Mordaunt was one who did, and lived to regret it. I have little doubt she would be prime minister today had her opponents not been able to ruthlessly exploit her stance on trans rights.
If Starmer moves towards a more sceptical position, he will offend the liberals who dominate the upper echelons of his party. Yet if he doesn’t, he will attract the opprobrium of perfectly decent potential Labour voters. It ought to be possible for a political party to contain people with all sorts of views on gender, but tolerance is a word modern day politics appear to eschew.
So far the issue hasn’t consumed the Conservative Party, but as it becomes an integral part of the intensifying culture wars, it may not just be the Labour leader who has a potentially uncomfortable decision to make.
UPDATE: * It's been pointed out to me that in fact there was no motion, although there was an incident when conference voted not to hear a motion on the LD Constitution which would have altered the rights on non binary people, but there was no other motion on trans issues. Instead there was THIS article on LibDem Voice, which proposed that anyone with gender critical views should leave the party.
A respondent writes: "I wouldn’t describe the party as split - although there is a small but very vocal minority (we are talking about 9 people out of a conference of 1500). On the rejection of their amendment to scrap the diversity quota for non binary people, they were defeated by around 90% of the vote. And every other time their stuff has come to the floor of Conference, it has been resoundingly defeated. The anti-trans groups in the party are losing the argument and they know it. When they spoke at Conference you could feel the temperature plummeting in the hall."