The Conservative leadership contest had barely started when a single issue – where the candidates stand on the definition of a woman – sprang to the top of the agenda. Some commentators were surprised or disapproving, arguing that it’s a marginal issue compared with the soaring cost of living, inflation or the war in Ukraine. Of course there are wider issues that matter, but to say other issues loom large does not mean we cannot debate gender at all.
Indeed, unlike the Labour leadership, leading Tories clearly sense widespread discomfort about changes to language and public facilities that have happened with next to no consultation. And the prominence of the issue in the current contest suggests it is going to be one of the defining fights of the next general election.
Far from being a distraction, however, it’s a smart move by the Tories to have their debate now. It may look to outsiders like a slanging match, but hasn’t Tory in-fighting always been vicious? It doesn’t change the fact that there is a vital issue at stake, raising questions about democratic consent. So much of what has happened, from organisations like Stonewall arguing against single-sex spaces to the creation of an atmosphere where feminists are thrown off Twitter for “liking” gender-critical tweets, has occurred by stealth.
The Tory leadership contest has brought the question of gender to a head, forcing prominent politicians who haven’t previously spoken on the subject to say where they stand. That it’s seen as Penny Mordaunt’s weak spot is instructive, suggesting her rivals sense that Tory voters want a leader who is clear on the issue. Mordaunt is popular with the grass roots, but she is backtracking fast on her previous positions on the language used in Iegislation affecting pregnant women.
It is to the chagrin of many women on the left that Tory politicians are leading this overdue debate. Keir Starmer has been hopeless on the issue, ignoring letters from feminists and lesbians who are in despair about Labour’s refusal to give clear answers to questions about biological sex. I told him face-to-face in May about the harassment of feminists in the Labour Party, but he’s still trying to sit on the fence. And Labour is losing support among women as a result.
It pains me to say it, as someone who is naturally left-leaning, but the Conservatives are doing the right thing by openly debating what has happened to women’s spaces, rights and free speech. And it’s a proxy for what’s likely to happen at the next general election, which could be sooner than we imagine.
Leading Conservatives have an almost preternatural sense of what matters to voters, including wavering Labour ones. I happen to think they are right to insist that biological sex matters, but it’s also a huge challenge to Starmer’s Labour Party. The Tories are limbering up to campaign as a right-wing party that knows what a woman is, up against a bunch of centre-left politicians who are terrified to give a clear answer.