Labour attacks the Lib Dems for rejecting female deputy leader candidate

Gloria De Piero says "This result comes as little surprise when you remember Nick Clegg leads a Parliamentary Party which has as many men with knighthoods as it has women MPs."

There was much surprise in Westminster last night when the Lib Dems announced that Malcolm Bruce had been elected as their new deputy leader (replacing Simon Hughes, who stood down to become a justice minister). While Bruce is both liked and respected, it was widely thought that the party's MPs would elect female candidate Lorely Burt in order to ensure the party finally has a woman at the top table (not least after the Rennard and Hancock scandals). But it was Bruce, who will stand down at the next election, who emerged as the winner.

In response, Labour has wasted little time in going on the attack. Gloria De Piero, the party's shadow minister for women and equalities, has just issued the statement below. 

This result comes as little surprise when you remember Nick Clegg leads a Parliamentary Party which has as many men with knighthoods as it has women MPs.

When it comes to women's representation, the Lib Dems really need to move up a gear. With just seven out of 57 MPs, they score even worse than the Tories.

The statement that the Lib Dems have "as many men with knighthoods as it has women MPs" might seem too bad to be true, but it's not. 

Here are the knights (one for "every day of the week", noted Bob Russell)

1. Sir Alan Beith 

2. Sir Malcolm Bruce 

3. Sir Menzies Campbell

4. Sir Nicholas Harvey 

5. Sir Bob Russell

6. Sir Robert Smith 

7. Sir Andrew Stunnell 

And here are the women:

1. Lorely Burt

2. Annette Brooke

3. Lynne Featherstone

4. Tessa Munt

5. Jo Swinson

6. Sarah Teather

7. Jenny Willott

Just 12.3 per cent of the party's 57 MPs are female, compared with 31 per cent of Labour MPs (the only party to use all-women shortlists) and 16 per cent of Tories. And the situation could be even worse after the next election. 

Of the Lib Dems' seven female MPs (not one of whom is in the cabinet), five hold seats among the party's 12 most marginal, including deputy leadership hopeful Lorely Burt, Jo Swinson and Tessa Munt, while none hold any of the 20 safest. The two safer seats held by Lib Dem women - Cardiff Central and Hornsey & Wood Green - are both vulnerable to a Labour challenge having been gained in 2005 on the back of the party's opposition to the Iraq war and top-up fees. Here they are listed in order of marginality.

1. Lorely Burt (Solihull) 0.3%, 175 votes

2. Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset) 0.6%, 269 votes

3. Tessa Munt (Wells) 1.4%, 800 votes

4. Sarah Teather (Brent Central) 3.0%, 1,345 vote

5. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) 4.6%, 2,184 votes

6. Jenny Willott (Cardiff Central), 12.7%, 4,576 votes

7.  Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green) 12.5%, 7,875 votes

Of these seven, two (Brooke and Teather) are standing down. Brooke has been replaced as the party's Mid Dorset candidate by Vikki Slade and Teather has been replaced by Ibrahim Taguri.

One point in the party's favour is that it has selected women in two other seats where incumbents are retiring (Julie Pörksen for Alan Beith in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Lisa Smart for Andrew Stunell in Hazel Grove), both of which are winnable (the party has a majority of 2,690 in the former and 6,371 in the latter, with the Tories in second place in each). 

Whether the Lib Dems manage to at least maintain their current level of female representation will depend on how successful they are at defending their seats against mainly Conservative opponents. With Swinson, Willott and Featherstone all at risk from Labour, they will have to hope that the split in the Tory vote (owing to UKIP) allows Burt, Brooke and Wells to preserve their tiny majorities. But it is plausible that the Lib Dems could be left with as few as two or three female MPs after the election. 

Danny Alexander and Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How society is failing transgender children

In the wake of the cancellation of a public debate on this subject, one of the speakers shares her view on where society's approach to gender nonconformity is going wrong.

In August this year, several UK councils issued guidance to schools on accommodating female pupils who wear binders. A binder is a constricting undergarment for the upper body: what it binds are the breasts, pressing them down to a flatness that the wearer feels is appropriate to their self-perception as masculine or gender-neutral. According to Cornwall Council, the binder is “very important to [the wearer’s] psychological wellbeing.” But binders have unwelcome physical side-effects too, including “breathing difficulties, skeletal problems and fainting.” Lancashire Council’s advice urges teachers to “monitor [wearers] carefully during physical activities and in hot weather. It may be necessary to subtly offer more breaks.”

When the NSPCC invited me to participate in a discussion on the subject “is society letting down transgender children?” (part of its Dare to Debate series), those guidelines were one of the first things I thought of. They’re written in accordance with the overriding principle of gender identity politics, which is that affirmation is all. Any bodily harms incurred count for little compared to the trauma believed to be inflicted by a “mismatch” between appearance and identity. It’s a doctrine that insists we’ve moved beyond the tyranny of physical sex and social pressure, and into a realm of pure selfhood where all must be able to live in accordance with their own inherent being.

And yet, look again at that list of side effects: breathing difficulties, skeletal problems, fainting, inability to participate fully in exercise. The female adolescents wearing binders have reproduced all the problems of tight-lacing corsets, this time in the service of restrictive anti-femininity rather than restrictive femininity. So is issuing guidance to reduce the harms of binder-wearing in schools an act of care for transgender children, or an abdication of it? Is the role of adults in authority – whether parental, educational or medical – to validate everything that comes under the rubric of transition, regardless of long-term consequences, or could another approach be better?

The number of children who identify as trans is small, but rapidly increasing: referrals to the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust’s gender identity development service have doubled year-on-year. Putting gender-nonconforming youths on a medical track opens the possibility that they will be prescribed puberty blockers, delaying the physical changes of adolescence that individuals may find distressing. Later, treatment can include cross-sex hormones and surgery to create the desired sexual characteristics.

For many, this can alleviate profound anguish about the self, but not without costs. The long-term effects of hormone therapies aren’t known, and won’t be until the current generation of trans children have lived well into adulthood. There’s a risk that increased medicalisation could be imposing permanent physical changes on children who, left to their own devices, would discover they are quite happy living with their natal sex – about 80 per cent of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria desist before adulthood, but the normalisation of medical transition could commit many to irrevocable treatments they would otherwise avoid.

Remarkably, as I found out when I worked on a long feature on the subject, there isn’t any agreement on what gender identity is or how it relates to the physical body. Which means that transitioning children are receiving an untested treatment for an undefined condition. Medicine often involves a surprising degree of idiosyncrasy and guesswork, but this uncertainty both about what is being treated and the effects of the treatment should be a cause for caution. While many who transition find it wholly positive, not everyone does: doubt and detransition happen, and these stories tell us that the quickest path to reassignment is not always the best treatment for someone presenting with dysphoria.

Sometimes, a diagnosis of gender dysphoria might mask a different underlying cause to a child’s distress. Psychiatrist Susan Bradley reports that children with cross-sex identification are often (not always) either responding defensively to a violent background or engaging in the obsessive behaviours associated with autistic spectrum disorders. A policy of “watchful waiting” – listening to the child, supporting them and giving them freedom to experiment and develop – is vital if we are to give children the kind of help they really need. But in an environment where anything short of total and immediate reinforcement is deemed abusive, “watchful waiting” is not an option.

One more problem: if gender dysphoria is conceived as the problem, and gender reassignment as the solution, then transition represents the summation of a process which should in theory resolve everything. In practice, newly-transitioned young people (especially those crossing the threshold from child and adolescent mental health services to adult provision) can find themselves stranded, no longer in receipt of the support they had during transition. We simply aren’t getting the treatment of transgender children right if we’re only treating their gender.

The consequences extend well beyond children who identify as trans, of course. Schools are suffused with sexual harassment and sexual violence, yet girls are expected to accept a child they previously knew as a boy as female like them, or be called bigots. The naturalisation of sex-stereotypes in parental narratives of transition surely has a limiting influence on other children’s conception of sex-appropriate behaviour. For some gender-nonconforming children, the cultural celebration of transition leads to anxiety about whether they themselves should be trans, even if they’re happy in their bodies. Certainly, many gay and lesbian adults have looked back on their own childhoods and remarked nervously that their behaviour then would qualify them as trans now.

If we’re not able to address these issues, then we’re manifestly failing children. But addressing them is incredibly difficult: practitioners who privately mention their doubts about current approaches to gender noncomformity are afraid to ask questions publicly, anticipating personal attacks and the loss of their jobs.

They’re not wrong to do so. After announcing the Dare to Debate event, the NSPCC was put under sustained pressure, I was persistently abused, and following the withdrawal of the other panelist, the charity cancelled the event. Previous installments in the series have looked at child sexualisation, foetal alcohol syndrome, and asked whether the investigation of child sexual abuse has tipped into “hysteria”, but apparently it would be just too daring to talk about gender. Doctrine so bitterly defended that it must even be protected from good-faith debate is a kind of restrictive garment for the intellect. Wearing it can ease our mental pangs. But the damage it does besides is very real.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.