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3 April 2022

Inside Labour’s “clusterfuck” week on trans rights

After a succession of embarrassing interviews on trans issues, a blame game has begun at the top of the party.

By Ailbhe Rea

Keir Starmer was nearly at the end of an uneventful Call Keir on Monday morning when his monthly phone-in radio show on LBC took an unexpected turn. A caller had asked about whether it is fair for trans women to compete in women’s sport and Nick Ferrari, the LBC host, began to press the Labour leader: “So, a woman can have a penis?” Starmer hesitated, looking uncomfortable: “Nick… I’m not… I don’t think we can conduct this debate with… you know…” he trailed off. “I don’t think that discussing this issue in this way helps anyone in the long run,” he said eventually, adding that he wanted to reform UK law on trans rights but that he was “also an advocate of safe spaces for women”. The clip of the Labour leader hesitating over Ferrari’s question went viral and the story was picked up across the press: “Keir Starmer refuses to say if a woman can have a penis”. 

The Sun dubbed Starmer a “todger dodger”, to the great amusement of those in his office. But by the middle of the week, with one Labour frontbencher after another floundering at questions about penises on the airwaves, Starmer was despairing. Labour’s official policy is to support reform of the Gender Recognition Act to make it easier for a trans person to obtain legal acknowledgement of their change of gender. This position is controversial inside and outside the party — and part of a wider, fractious public debate around trans rights that tends to stray far beyond the legal technicalities of provisions for trans people and same-sex spaces, and into a heated discussion about the legitimacy of trans identities and the philosophical fundamentals of sex and gender. 

As Starmer and his frontbenchers saw their efforts to talk about the cost-of-living crisis and the police handing out the first fines over partygate overshadowed by questions about genitalia and definitions of womanhood, the Labour leader felt his party couldn’t win, no matter the answer it gave. “It’s a very painful, emotional subject for people, but you can make any position sound ridiculous if you start asking about penises and cervixes,” someone close to the Labour leader despaired.

It has been a “tricky few weeks” for Labour on this issue, as one insider put it, ever since Anneliese Dodds, the Labour Party chair and shadow women and equalities secretary, appeared on Woman’s Hour for International Women’s Day and was asked to define “woman”, to which she said “it depends on what the context is”. Her comments were seized upon by the novelist JK Rowling, who tweeted to her 14 million followers: “Someone please send the Shadow Minister for Equalities a dictionary and a backbone. #HappyInternationalWomensDay” She continued: “Apparently, under a Labour government, today will become We Who Must Not Be Named Day.”

Those close to Dodds defended her answer, noting that it came in the context of several questions about the Equality Act, which uses sex and gender interchangeably, and that she was right to point out that the law defines “woman” differently in different contexts.

Not everyone in the party was so supportive. “She took five minutes to explain, on International Women’s Day, what a woman was on Woman’s Hour. It was absolutely catastrophic,” complained one insider. “It’s gone on from then. It’s not good enough. Ultimately, it takes us further away from winning an election.”

Tensions have risen internally in the past week over Labour’s embarrassment on this issue, and the blame game has begun. Some in the shadow cabinet have grown frustrated with Dodds and her team, who are responsible for party policy on trans rights and the lines to take in media interviews. “It’s been a f***ing dog’s dinner, frankly,” complained one figure. “The line has changed repeatedly. This has been going on for six months. There’s been a full 180 on the genitalia question. We have looked ridiculous.”

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Those close to Dodds, meanwhile, are understood to have been frustrated about Labour colleagues “freelancing” on the issue, delivering their own lines instead of the ones they were briefed. Those colleagues, in turn, complain that the original lines were not strong enough.

Dodds’ allies argue that Labour’s position on trans rights has been clarified since she moved into her role, and that the party is in a much better position now than it was at its annual conference last September. One “major issue”, an ally noted, was that Labour hadn’t always been clear about whether it supports the single-sex exemptions in the Equality Act. Now, whenever the controversial policy on Gender Recognition Act reforms comes up, Labour politicians emphasise that the legal power of places such as domestic abuse refuges to exclude trans women — on a proportionate, case-by-case basis — under the Equality Act would remain unchanged by Labour.

Frustrated colleagues argue, however, that recourse to the technical parts of the Equality Act isn’t enough when asked forthright questions about how to define a woman, as happened this week. “Single-sex exemptions aren’t a line,” said an insider. “That’s just legalese. If Labour can’t give a straightforward answer to a common-sense question, the danger is they [the voters] think we’re still this bizarre, snooty, metropolitan party.”

By the end of the week Starmer and Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, were both talking about biological differences (“Men have penises, women have vaginas, here ends my biology lesson,” Streeting told the talkRadio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer), before emphasising the need for respect for those transitioning: a subtle shift in Labour’s line and one that Streeting is understood to have urged for some time. A person close to Starmer said diplomatically that they were reasonably pleased with “where we got to” on the question. 

“It’s been such a clusterfuck,” said another exasperated insider at the messy week Labour has endured. The frustration is not just with poor political communications, but the discomfort displayed by some of the party’s politicians when they have to talk about trans issues.

“I’m furious about it and it’s a really horrible place to be gay at the minute,” said one insider. “Some of it is that people don’t know what to say. I get that. But equally I don’t think this would be happening with any other form of discrimination. I think if people knew how uncomfortable Labour politicians are defending LGBTQ rights they’d be really upset.”

Labour figures all say that the line of media questioning over the past week has been cheap and unpleasant — one described it as “rude and gratuitous to talk about the genitalia of trans people”. And everyone is aware of the competing tensions the party must manage: the squeamishness they feel talking about genitals, the concern they feel about causing hurt to the trans community and the desire to say something pithy and with common sense. They also see it as a diversion tactic when voters are breaking down in tears about the cost-of-living crisis in focus groups and never bring up trans issues in such settings.

Those at the top of the Labour Party believe that, despite the difficult media environment on trans issues, they are in the same place as the British public, who generally take a compassionate, “live and let live” approach to the question. While the public debate rages with ferocity, however, the divisions within Labour are still bubbling under the surface. Some people are at odds with the party’s position, others hurt by the discomfort with which they are defending it. “Everyone wants it to go away, but it won’t go away while we look so scared about it,” one figure said.

Labour may think it has cracked the policy question and arrived at an answer to the question that tripped Starmer up on Monday morning (“so, a woman can have a penis?”) but some are still worried. “It’s become a spectator sport, people laughing at us because we can’t define what a woman is. It sounds tangential, but it’s a fundamental thing about whether we speak a language voters understand. The Tories will lean into this hard at the election. It’s something that deeply worries me.”

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