In 2018, when Ireland voted in a referendum to overturn the country’s ban on abortion, the decision to go to the nation with a question so fraught with religious and moral disagreement had followed an unusual political process. Two years earlier, Ireland’s parliament established a citizens’ assembly to discuss issues including abortion. The referendum was a direct outcome of that process of deliberative democracy.
This year, the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) followed Ireland’s example to tackle an issue that is dividing the feminist movement: trans rights. The party convened a members’ assembly around the seemingly intractable subject of gender self-identification, or gender self-ID. During Theresa May’s premiership, the government developed proposals to allow transgender people to amend their birth certificate without a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The WEP voted to discuss the matter at its 2018 conference. In September – just one week into the consultation – Boris Johnson abandoned plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).
Broadly, opponents of the reform claim it would impact women’s rights under the 2010 Equality Act, as well as putting women at risk of violence by making it possible for men to enter women-only spaces. Supporters of the reform argue that it would enable transgender people to live with dignity, and that it would not endanger single-sex spaces, as these are protected under the Equality Act.
The vitriolic debate has divided the WEP, with “pretty much the replications of the discussions you see on Twitter,” Tabitha Morton, the party’s deputy leader, tells me. “We are not a special breed of feminist that are unaffected by these things.”
But Morton was struck by the existence of a silent majority without a strong opinion and mostly confused by trans issues, who refrained from debate because of the toxicity they witnessed on Twitter.
“A huge number of people were like, ‘what does this actually mean? Am I losing rights? Am I gaining rights? How can we be all equal if we’re not equal?’ There was a huge questioning bunch that very much kept it quiet because they just didn’t know whether it was safe to ask the question.”
Over three weeks in September – with the requisite awkwardness of Covid-era life via Zoom – 56 party members heard evidence from witnesses on subjects including media coverage of the trans debate, ending violence against women and girls, equal representation, legislation and data collection, and then deliberated on the sessions. The government’s decision to drop GRA reform confused some, admits Morton, but “whatever the government decided, feminism is still tearing itself apart around this subject”.
Witnesses included Karen Ingala Smith of the Counting Dead Women Project, Ruth Serwotka, a trade unionist and co-founder of Women’s Place UK – both in the anti-gender self-ID camp – and solicitor Polly Morgan, who argued that gender self-ID would not hurt women’s rights. Zed Lomax, a non-binary trans teacher and party member was also in favour of reforming the GRA.
In what ways do other parties try to build consensus on fractious issues? The Conservatives have often been divided, from the Corn Laws in the 19th century to (lest we need reminding) Brexit. One Tory member, who preferred to remain nameless, put it to me that the party tends to split rather than institute mechanisms to find common ground. “The Tory party has never really been as ‘motions at conference’ heavy as Labour,” he said. “The historic view of the membership has been that they are there to pay their dues, canvass at elections and select parliamentary candidates. The real party was always in the parliamentary party.”
Paul Richards, a writer and long-standing Labour activist recalled several examples, including the party’s National Policy Forum, established by Tony Blair after the 1997 general election.
Anne Black, a former NPF chair, explained on LabourList in 2018 that the body was, in theory, meant to ensure “that party and government stayed in tune, campaigning and winning further elections, rather than falling prey to internal feuding. It would be achieved through consensual, deliberative policy-making, rather than polarising resolutions and public confrontation.”
It was “a reaction to the gladiatorial spectacle of conference with complex issues decided by three-minute speeches. The example we gave was [Denis] Healey explaining the IMF loan in a speech from the floor of conference while Trots booed,” Richards recalled, referring to a 1976 speech by the then chancellor.
The WEP didn’t see any examples to follow from political parties or feminist groups over the issue of gender self-ID. “What we felt as a party was that making statements that sound inclusive of one group or another isn’t enough,” said Morton. “That’s all we were seeing from other political parties.”
Last month, assembly members discussed the experience at the WEP’s conference. Some noted that hearing statements from witnesses that wouldn’t have been accepted as part of the deliberations – for example, one stating that “trans women aren’t women” – was tough to swallow. Another recalled how they had to leave the deliberations after a triggering evidence session. But the overwhelming conclusion was that the process did push participants towards common ground, putting a tangible humanity to viewpoints it might be easy to discount online.
In one particularly difficult testimony, a rape and domestic violence survivor explained her fear that gender self-ID would mean women-only spaces would no longer feel safe for her children. “My children in a shelter can’t be expected to believe someone is a woman when they aren’t,” she said. “Their trauma response to a male voice can’t be faked or covered up.”
That could arguably make for uncomfortable hearing for some, but it’s hard to discount the testimony of an abuse survivor. The response in the assembly, says Morton, was to accept the woman’s lived experience. Assembly members tried to devise solutions to make sure that all women would be able to access the right support if they needed to go to a shelter.
The WEP is now working out which recommendations to accept. In the case of more radical changes, it will consult its 30,000-strong membership.
Deliberative assemblies are a powerful way to bring people into politics and find common ground on polarising issues. This model could be applied within parties to build consensus, but also across the country. The Climate Assembly UK, a citizens’ assembly on the climate crisis, was convened by six select committees of the House of Commons in June 2019, publishing its final report in September. That is arguably a less intractable matter than trans rights, but imagine a world where, instead of rushing to stage a referendum, David Cameron had convened an assembly on Brexit? The problem, perhaps, is that, for that to work, you have to really want to listen to the other side.