It’s not the Labour leadership candidates who won’t stop talking about trans issues

The main reason we have heard “so much” about the subject is that it is a rare policy area that reliably produces mainstream media coverage. 

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Why do the Labour leadership candidates keep talking about trans rights? That’s the question being asked by a number of commentators – the academic Eric Kaufmann is the latest to write on the issue, while Matt Singh of NumberCruncherPolitics has repeatedly warned that Labour is harming itself by focussing unduly on the issue.

There is just one problem: the Labour leadership candidates don’t keep talking about trans rights. It is, at the very minimum, the eighth pledge in the Labour leadership contest and one of the least significant as far as differentiating between the candidates, not least because two out of the three remaining candidates (Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey) have signed it, and the third (Keir Starmer) has indicated that he broadly agrees with the pledge.  Just as importantly, there is, at the present time, no clear daylight between Labour and the Conservatives on the issue either.

That reflects the reality, as we discussed on our podcast, that the debate has no particular read-across to the party’s wider internal battles. As with, say, the Conservatives’ divisions over Brexit, which transcend the divides between the party’s right and centre-right wings, opponents of the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights exist on both the party’s left flank and its centre-left.

Yet the policy has received far greater coverage than comparably unifying pledges on public ownership and the free movement of people. I’m going to make a wild prediction here: if the next Labour leader keeps both those pledges and leads Labour to the next election, their continued support for free movement and big-ticket nationalisations will have a bigger impact on the election than their position on trans rights.

The main reason why we have heard “so much” about the issue is that it is a rare policy issue that reliably produces a large body of mainstream media coverage and commentary. It’s a bit like the legalisation of cannabis, the only Liberal Democrat policy that BritainThinks’ online panel noticed in 2017. It’s simply not true to say that the Liberal Democrats talked more about cannabis than Brexit – but it “cut through” for a number of reasons, partly to do with pre-existing opinions about the party’s preoccupations, and partly because while most voters did not know what the Liberal Democrats’ Brexit position was, most media outlets regarded it as old news.

So the problem here is not about candidates talking “so much” about one issue – but that talking at all about one issue causes a far greater level of discussion as a result.

However, that insight is important to remember. One common failure state among political parties is to confuse having a media analysis with having a media strategy, e.g. if you conclude that the bulk of the print press is against you and your best bet is focus on broadcast and digital communications, but you then hire a bunch of ex-journalists who have never worked in broadcast or digital journalism to run your communications team. But having a good analysis of the media is an essential first part of having a good strategy: see, for instance, the difference between the largely unsuccessful attempts by Theresa May’s communications chief Robbie Gibb to spin the BBC and the much more successful attempts to do the same by Boris Johnson’s, Lee Cain.

But just as a good media strategy has to flow from good media analysis, good political strategy cannot flow from bad media analysis. If the honest analysis is that, fundamentally, any mention of rights-based issues and policies will swamp discussion of any other form of policy discussion, because it’s frankly a lot easier to explain in bite-sized chunks on TV, then fine. If the analysis goes a bit further and says that there are, broadly, issues on which people already assume they know the position of one party on – for instance, the Conservatives have to convince voters at every election that they aren’t still flirting with introducing private health vouchers – and that their public statements need to be designed around those prejudices and those of the media, so much the better.

Political parties can and perhaps should work with those insight. But any analysis based on the idea that Labour should simply talk about the issue less, when they have in fact hardly talked about it at all, doesn’t really work and won’t produce an electoral strategy that works either.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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