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25 June 2024

Labour’s women problem

Keir Starmer must accept that JK Rowling is right.

By Hannah Barnes

Labour has a problem with women. There had been some positive signs of late. The shadow justice secretary, Shabana Mahmood, clearly stated last month: “I believe in the importance of recognising biological sex; it’s immutable and it’s fundamental to how the vast majority of women understand their existence on this Earth.” She also told the Spectator podcast it was “obvious that there were going to be scenarios in which the rights of women to sex-segregated spaces were going to clash with the desire of people to be trans-inclusive as well”.

But those who have engaged with the detail are a minority among Labour’s front bench. When Kemi Badenoch pledged that the Conservatives would clarify that “sex” in the Equality Act meant biological sex, it was dismissed by John Healey as a “distraction”, something that was “not needed”. Lawyers and the Equality and Human Rights Commission would beg to differ.

The Equality Act allows for single-sex spaces to exclude those who have changed sex legally by gaining a gender recognition certificate (GRC). For women, the right to these spaces is about safety and dignity. And those who most need them are often the most vulnerable: women in prison or fleeing domestic violence. Yet a landmark judgement from the Scottish courts in late 2022 ruled that sex, for the purposes of the act, was “not limited to biological or birth sex” and included “those in possession of a GRC”. It is precisely because the law is unclear that arguments for and against this will be heard in the UK’s Supreme Court. For Labour to pretend otherwise is folly.

Details of how Labour intends to reform the process for gaining a GRC suggest a lack of understanding about the current rules. Its wish to remove the requirement for someone to have lived in their acquired gender for two years, to be replaced by a two-year “reflection period”, and to make the opinion of a single doctor with specialist gender experience sufficient to gain a GRC, have made headlines. Both would make the process of changing legal sex easier.

But Labour also intends to get rid of the “spousal veto”, which provides an important safeguard for (mostly) women. The veto isn’t really a veto at all; it’s about the non-transitioning partner giving consent to stay in the marriage. They can’t prevent the other from obtaining a GRC, but if they no longer wish to be in the marriage, an “interim GRC” that triggers a process to end it – either by annulment or divorce – is issued instead. Once this process is complete, a GRC is granted. Just think why someone might not consent: a GRC turns an opposite-sex marriage into a same-sex marriage, or vice versa. It seems only right that a partner should have a say.

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Together, the refusal to acknowledge any ambiguity in the meaning of sex in the Equality Act and the move to make it easier to change legal sex, worry some women.

The reason we are talking about this at all is because of JK Rowling. One of the world’s most influential women used a 2,000-word op-ed in the Times to say that, after a lifetime of voting Labour, she would now struggle to vote for the party because of its weak stance on women’s rights. Labour, she said, had “abandoned” women.

Rowling’s article was motivated by Keir Starmer’s performance on Question Time on 20 June. He was reminded by an audience member of his 2021 criticism of the Labour MP Rosie Duffield’s factually correct statement that “only women have a cervix”. It was, Starmer had argued, “something that shouldn’t be said – it is not right”. Had he now backtracked? Instead of simply saying “yes”, he said he agreed with Tony Blair (no mention of Duffield) that men have penises and women have vaginas. Starmer added that at the time of his initial comments, he was “worried… by the way in which the debate was being conducted, because it got very toxic, very divided, very hard-line”.

Duffield, Rowling pointed out, knows better than most how “toxic” the issue has become. Both women have received death threats from the same man. “Rosie was to be taken out with a gun; I was to be beaten to death with a hammer,” Rowling wrote. And, she added: “It seems Rosie has received literally no support from Starmer over the threats and abuse, some of which has originated from within the Labour Party itself.” Wes Streeting is the only shadow cabinet member to have apologised for her treatment. And Streeting alone appears to have recognised how serious an attack from Rowling is to his party, acknowledging that Labour had a “lot more work to do” to regain the trust of biological women.

Both Starmer and Rachel Reeves have said they would meet Rowling (no invitation was issued to Duffield). Rowling replied that she’d be happy to, but only after a string of grass-roots women’s organisations that have long raised concerns with Labour got a hearing. That it only offers to listen to one woman, who happens to be Britain’s most famous author, speaks volumes.

The problem is we don’t know what Labour stands for. History suggests that even if the party did issue a strong statement on how to accommodate both women and trans people’s rights, it would not stick to it – especially if it became expedient to abandon such a position.

This is not a manufactured “culture war”, as Labour wants to suggest. That it has become one is a product partly of the party’s own making. It is a real issue that needs a clear response. Sometimes you can’t keep everyone happy. “You want to be inclusive… but you do have to recognise sex segregation has a place not just for safety, but for the dignity of women as well,” Mahmood said in May. This is “where the party is… the common-sense position”. Recent events tell us otherwise. 

[See also: Starmer and Sunak try to charm the readers of the Sun]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine