Last February, when Keir Starmer was still only a hopeful in the Labour leadership race, he and his competitors found themselves thrust into a row over the endorsement of a new trans rights charter.
Starmer’s instinct then to stay out of the wrangling might have been most in line with voter sentiment. According to exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton*, Labour’s 2019 voters are pretty evenly split on the issue of trans rights.
Following the recent controversy over Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust introducing a “gender-inclusive” language policy in perinatal services, respondents were asked whether Labour should support the NHS in adding gender-neutral language to widen access for transgender and non-binary people: 42 per cent said yes, 41 per cent said no, and 17 per cent didn’t know.
A 12-point pledge from Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, which called for the party to expel members with “bigoted, transphobic views”, split the leadership contenders last year. The debate generated some criticism, many a headline and discussion during Labour’s leadership hustings on BBC Newsnight.
The pledge’s description of organisations such as Woman’s Place UK, which believes biological sex should underpin guarantees of women’s rights, as “trans-exclusionist hate groups” was the subject of some controversy. The issue caused observable anguish for some candidates wary of offending either side of the bitter public debate over trans rights.
“It’s a very tough pledge but it’s important that we are tough,” Lisa Nandy told BBC Radio 4 at the time, though she admitted to Sky’s Sophie Ridge that the wording had given her “pause for thought” and criticised pledge cards themselves for “pit[ting] people against one another”.
Emily Thornberry joined her in support, but released a statement “voicing concern” over the use of the term “hate group”. Rebecca Long-Bailey and deputy contenders Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler endorsed the pledge.
Starmer didn’t back the charter and avoided the tortuous caveats. Instead he backed another, less contentious, pledge card from Labour Campaign for LGBT+ rights, and declared at the Newsnight leadership hustings that “trans rights are human rights” and should be protected.
According to a YouGov poll last June, Labour voters are more progressive on transgender rights than Conservative voters, and when compared to Britons as a whole. Some 53 per cent of Labour voters said they would accept the new gender identity of transgender men and women, compared with 34 per cent of Conservatives.
Yet our polling on the aforementioned hospital’s “gender inclusive” language suggests a division among the party’s voters.
In our poll, Labour voters also appeared ambivalent about prioritising race and gender equality in policymaking.
Starmer and the shadow women and equalities secretary, Marsha de Cordova, have spoken of the need to strengthen the Equal Pay Act and ensure the pandemic’s impact on women is monitored. In addition, a report the party commissioned last year on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority communities found the pandemic “exposed the devastating impact of structural racism”.
But when asked if Labour should prioritise gender in its coronavirus economic recovery plan, a little over half of Labour voters were in favour: 54 per cent in favour, 15 per cent opposed, and 29 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed (3 per cent didn’t know).
Asked a similar question about prioritising racial equality in the Covid-19 economic recovery, again only half were on board: 50 per cent were in favour and 13 per cent opposed. Some 24 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed, and 3 per cent didn’t know.
For those assuming Labour is alienating supporters by attempting to avoid so-called culture war debates, this polling indicates that the party is unlikely to be punished by its existing voters for doing so. Labour should give its voters the focus on healthcare, education and the economy our polling indicates they want, rather than being dragged into fights Tory ministers such as Robert Jenrick and Liz Truss are desperate to start.
*Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled 1,499 people who voted Labour in 2019, on 23-24 February 2021