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5 January 2022

Rachel Cunliffe

Progressives prefer political purity to winning the culture war

Why did no one on the left support Tom Harwood's defence of trans rights?

How do you win a culture war?  

I ask because, in the battle of ideas, the aim is presumably to convince your opponents. The best way to do that is to get your point of view to as wide an audience as possible. It particularly helps if you’re speaking to people who disagree with you, or at very least haven’t heard your arguments before. 

The journalist Tom Harwood is generally considered quite definitively on the right. He was pro-Brexit, he stood as a Conservative council candidate, and he made his name as a reporter for the right-wing political gossip blog Guido Fawkes. He now has a show on GB News – a channel that defined itself from the start as a bastion of anti-wokery. 

You would therefore not necessarily expect Harwood to be a natural champion for trans rights. Yet on 4 January he shocked viewers of GB News by launching into an impassioned debate against a guest who was on the show to argue that trans-girls should not be accepted into single-sex girls schools. 

“Do you honestly think the human race has got this far without recognising biological sex?” the guest asked. “I don’t check you for your chromosomes,” Harwood threw back at her. 

He made the same point on his Twitter feed, where he shared the clip: 

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This isn’t the first time Harwood has made this point or spoken out in defence of trans rights. The day before, he had tweeted that the proposed ban on trans-girls in single-sex schools was “insane”, saying: “Young trans girls are indistinguishable from their non-trans friends. Feels like this country is *uniquely in the world* sliding backwards on trans rights.” He has spent much of the past 48 hours doubling down on his opinion, tweeting polling that shows widespread support for gender self-identification and pushing back on claims by his opponents that a person’s genitals are the most important thing when assessing their gender. 

The backlash has been predictable: hundreds of tweets ridiculing Harwood’s view. But what’s interesting has been the silence on the other side. 

Because while the comments Harwood has been tweeting may be controversial in the GB News circles, they’re pretty standard fodder on the left. Owen Jones – the polar opposite of Harwood in terms of political allegiance – has been making the exact same arguments for years. So have hundreds of trans rights activists and, indeed, most of the Labour Party. The phrase “trans women are women” has become a mantra among progressives – so much so that to disagree with it (as, for example, the long-time Labour supporter JK Rowling has done) is to surrender one’s left-wing credentials entirely. 

So you might expect the progressives to come to Harwood’s defence, sharing his clip and welcoming him to their side. Instead, tumbleweed. There’s a browser extension you can add that colour-codes online content, including Twitter accounts, red (anti) or green (pro) depending on their stance on trans rights. The responses condemning Harwood are overwhelmingly red; there are barely any green-coded accounts talking about him at all. 

They’re under no obligation to, of course – you don’t have to cheerlead everyone who shares your view on social media. But still, it’s curious: Harwood has an audience that (based on their age and political allegiance) is likely to have a hostile view of trans rights, and he came out to try to convince people of the alternative perspective. That’s a thousand times more powerful for the movement than, say, a Guardian column making a case that progressive readers already agree with. The latter might get more accolades, but it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind. To do that, you have to speak to people who think differently to you. 

And that makes me wonder, ultimately, if winning is even possible in a culture war that has become so utterly toxic. Because if someone ideological tribalism dictates should be against you suddenly turns out to be on your side, wouldn’t you want to shout it from the rooftops? Wouldn’t you want to use them to help win over as many people as possible? And if you don’t – if you’re more concerned with someone’s political pedigree than whether their arguments help your cause – do you actually want to win at all? 

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