The madness of self-identification in a political party

by Rob Marchant

While one can guarantee that on the streets of British provincial towns, it is not exactly an issue high on most people’s agenda, it is clear that, on Twitter and in the political bubble that is Westminster politics, the tricky area of trans politics has in recent months taken a huge step into the limelight.

Last week, Labour, for the first time, declared that people who declare themselves to be trans should be accepted as such within the party, without question. Obviously it is not intrinsically “trans-phobic” to have concerns about the fairness or viability of a mechanical process, but that is exactly the charge now being levelled at anyone in that category. And such criticism is, in most cases, because people genuinely see that such a policy is open to abuse.

Like activist David Lewis who, to draw attention to the potential for abuse, declared himself a woman but only “on Wednesdays” and put himself forward to be Women’s Officer in his local CLP. Satire, yes, but an important point – who is to say he is any less worthy of consideration than someone who says he is a woman five days, or seven days a week? Where do you draw the line?

No, rather like the penalty for criticising the Dear Leader himself, anyone currently raising concerns about self-id on Twitter (for the record, we are not talking about Neanderthal men, the critics are largely women) is now risking a torrent of online abuse. And Lewis is currently suspended from the party for his pains.

To avoid complications and focus on the right issue, let’s assume for the moment that Labour’s positive discrimination intervention at three separate points in its parliamentary selection processes is completely fair and does what it says on the tin. This is to avoid the thorny debate about, at the very least, All Women Shortlists, which have been the cause of much controversy (not to mention having been ruled illegal, until a Labour government itself changed the law to make this not so). So, for simplicity, let’s assume that it all currently works.

Why then, would you suddenly change the rules, such that any man who decided to call themselves a woman can now stand as a candidate under said positive discrimination rules, whether they were genuinely trans or not?

We are not talking about everyday practical things, such as using a different toilet, although even that is fraught with difficulties. But that can be dealt with outside the party.

Here we are talking about a process which has legal weight, which could ultimately provide you with access to a well-paid job and some reasonable measure of local, or even national, fame.

Bizarrely, it is not even the first time that Labour has used self-identification, and even in the more minor way it has been used for many years, it has been self-evidently open to some level of abuse. That is, the signs that self-identification in any sphere was problematic have always been there. And it’s largely about the potential for a definition to leave room for “interpretation”.

I’ll explain. For years, Labour has allowed people to self-identify by race. The essential argument is this: if you are from an ethnic minority, you are favoured in its selections, because it is assumed that you are suffering from some level of discrimination which will make it less likely for you to either succeed or apply in the first place.

But what is “from an ethnic minority”, anyway?

Okay, so for example, if you look Chinese, come from a Chinese family and have a Chinese name, you may (or not) self-identify as Chinese – whether first- or second-generation. You may suffer from discrimination and the process may fix that.

Now suppose you are second-generation Greek, as was one candidate in a selection I remember. You speak accentless English, your parents came from another EU country, your skin is pretty much the same colour as mine, although you may have a slightly unusual name (don’t we all in modern Britain). But you are classed “ethnic minority” and have a leg-up in the selection because you self-identified. Now suppose you are French, or German. Should you have a leg-up as well? You see the problem?

And what if you were Jewish? Technically you would have to have a mother who was Jewish but, if you self-id, perhaps your grandmother is enough. Or your father. You could be German, with a Jewish-sounding name. No-one is checking, after all.

Quite probably such pathological cases with ethnicity-related self-id are relatively few. But the above argument is to make a point: self-id is fraught with problems. And these problems are nothing, repeat, nothing to do with prejudice against trans people, any more than it is to do with racial prejudice. It’s about a workable process versus an unworkable one.

Most disturbingly, the trans debate seems to have split Labour. On the one hand, LGBT Labour (including many prominent parliamentarians) has largely seen trans as the new gay; that is, an oppressed minority which need to be nurtured and supported, just as gay men and women were in the 1980s, so that they could finally win equality over the next couple of decades.

A noble aim. But in the context of selections, trans is not the new gay. It cannot be. While trans men and women certainly suffer discrimination of a kind that has been rapidly diminishing for gay men and women in recent years, the argument is not the same because gender is not sexuality.

To explain: we do not have (to my knowledge) legal definitions of gay or straight which can be used, for example, to secure a preference (for example, an All Gay Shortlist is still yet to happen in Labour). Neither would such a preference be legal, currently. Hence there does not appear to be, at least here, the risk of a candidate, say, pretending to be gay to secure an advantage, because there isn’t one. Phew. And it’s just as well, because such a phenomenon would set back the cause of gay rights decades.

But, in contrast, this is not the case with trans. It’s madness. You are applying a subjective rule to something which has legal standing. You just can’t do that and have it all work swimmingly.

In short: Labour has, its eyes blinded by its laudable wish to support minorities of all kinds, just wandered into an area of utterly dubious logic and which could cause terrible and visible problems of a legal and constitutional nature, not to mention headlines that would just write themselves for tabloid newspaper editors.

There needs to be a better way of dealing with this without stamping on the rights of either trans women or non-trans women, and Labour needs to find it. Sharpish.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left


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13 Responses to “The madness of self-identification in a political party”

  1. Francis Mcgonigal says:

    The solution is to hold Open Primaries where any party member one could stand regardless of gender, ethic group or trans/cis status.
    A longer term solution is to campaign for electoral reform particularly STV, which allows fair representation of minorities (however defined), not just by party.
    The problem with AWS is that it is an attempt to retrofit fair representation for women into a system of single member constituencies and first-past-the-post which is extremely difficult [though not impossible].

  2. JV says:

    It’s difficult to see how else you could do it.

    Your options are;

    1) Refuse to allow people who are trans to stand as their chosen gender (so make it solely decided on their biological sex).

    Not really a goer.

    2) Allow people who are trans to stand as their chosen gender.

    Leads to the problems as listed above.

    3) Allow people who are trans to stand as their chosen gender once they meet a defined list of criteria for it being “serious”.

    So who gets to decide what that defined list of criteria is?

    Do you do like the NHS’s criteria for operations and say that they can stand as their chosen gender when they’ve been living as their chosen gender for a period of a few years? If so, who gets to choose how long that is, who gets to audit that, who gets to chase it up?

    Do you say that you can’t stand as a chosen gender unless you’ve gone through reassignment surgery? In which case, who gets to check?

    Basically, your choices come down to unqualified yes, unqualified no, or qualified yes – and if you have a qualified yes that leads to all sorts of queries about who is a “good enough” trans to be considered.

    On balance the system Labour have in place, with all its flaws, appears to be the fairest one to me.

  3. steve says:

    My assumption is that the support of Blairite metropolitans for self-id and for high profile self-id activists is an attempt to create division and undermine Corbyn.

    We are now in the odd position where Corbyn supporters have been expelled from the LP for saying “women don’t have a penis”.

  4. Geoff says:

    Scrap Women’s only shortlists which regardless of what the Law now allows(Thanks to Labour!) are gender discrimination against men. Then there is no problem with transgender or any other group.

  5. John P Reid says:

    Well said we’ve got to the stage unless it’s between friends at meetings, people are too scared to say this ,
    When Rashanari Ali stood(then dropped out )for the deputy leadership election, 3 years ago

    Her intial selling point was apart from the co-op the Fabians ,and your union,

    Labour Party shouldn’t have all these, Christian labour, Jewish labour, labour friends of Noerthern Ireland, labour friends of Israel/Palestine etc

    By all means , let there be discussion groups, like labour leave, labour for the single market etc

    So it brings on to the biggest problem with these descriptions, that has seen the likes of Nimko Ali and Dwayne Brooke’s, tw oblack expel fed up with being catergorized by the elite in the Labour Party ,telling them what they should think, support the Tories

    That problem being WHAT ABOUT the WORKING CLASS

    Not today that labour members from Liverpool, or Hackney aren’t working class and don’t feel that Corbynites contact with the rest of the country, but…

    I know Heidi alaxnders old seat , hopefully to be Janet Davy’s one

    There’s 2 group, the African Caribbean members who mainly aren’t on the executive who turn up say m bring back smacking in schools, more community service for those who get cautions, and then.. there’s the establishment, not knocking the hard and goo work th locals albour party does there, but I recall them looking on in Disgust that the BAME working class felt that, ironically the next seat Greenwich and woolwixh, is More corbynite, and the elite white executive there tell the woking class young black groups there about white priveledge, and postinge descrimination,and they all lap it up

    So what is the working class outside of London and Liverpool and what chance do they have of getting selected ,when they’re the ones that could be appealing to the electorate, with an aging population to get new members to go to council estates to talk to those who haven’t voted labour nationally in decades, they have to rely on localism, rather than getting them to vote against the Tories as the perception the Tories, are cruel but at least they’re honest. To the point the rot started with Blair, and his globalization, rather than his liberalism,which the socially conservative, centrists tolerated,

    I’d define it as English labour network appeal to daily mirror readers ..and
    blue labour appeals to sun readers.

    So if labour wants to win working class areas we have to ask ourselves can you imagine this candidate reading the Sun,then repeating verbatim, a columnist to the electorate and say this is why I agree with the paper on wanting abetter way of life for you ,me and our families

  6. John P Reid says:

    Steve, I think Jennifer James has only been suspended for that quote and has been out canvassing for labour since,
    Although, Heather pito is standing on the labour first ticket for the NEC,
    Many Corbynites, Clive Lewis, Rebecca long Bailey, Angela rayner have supported Lily Madigans witch hunt,
    At the same time a few of the blue labour people who spoke out ,like Paul embery Renie Anjeh have been reported, but then when Christina Freeman, but in Twitter

    If a Trans woman isn’t a real woman because they have the word trans in front of woman, then a black woman isn’t a real woman because they have the word black in front of woman, and to avoid embaresment, Christina stood down as LGBT rep

    I think the real problem, was as many of my gay and lesbian friends say, when they went on gay ,lesbian pride marches in the late 80’s early 90’s no one asked them about adding the Letter T, to the and G, banner as it was called then

    Of course many a person I inoe said Harriet Hartman was a sell out for getting her husband in a AWS 4 years ago,

    While canvassing in the past, I’ve worries about, having BAME canvassers in areas where there was a high BNP vote, although I’ve never worried about if a BAME candidate canvassed as long as they didn’t canvass in their own

    To be honest if a known snob like Owen jones or emily thornberry canvassed in a working class area, and the public New the contempt they had for the working class, the reception in the door step may be worse.

  7. John P Reid says:

    A CiS or Terf or what er they’re called now group has been banned by twitter
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-44288431

    The last three people to have their two twitter feeds banned are now in prison for revealing the truth, the state didn’t want is to know , just saying

  8. Tafia says:

    To the vast bulk of everyday people, irrespective of the clothes you wear or what you claim, if you possess a cock and bollocks you are a bloke.

    We have far more important things to think about – such as the next World Cup, the latest BOGOF offers in Tescos and who is shagging who on Eastenders/Corrie to worry about what self-indulgent toss-pot knob heads are whining about.

    Gender identity politics – if you can write your name in the snow you are a bloke.

    End of story.

  9. @Steve: I’m not sure that’s at all true. Most Blairites I think are strongly against this (and I should probably know). The only exceptions are those who are closely involved with the LGBT movement, as noted in the piece.

    @Geoff: Despite some residual sexism and racism in this party, there is certainly at least an argument for this. Positive discrimination has a ratchet effect in general, once in place it is very difficult to argue for its removal. It is also hard to police effectively, as this piece shows.

  10. Anne says:

    I do not condone female, ethnic minority, trans short list. Applicants should apply – CVs, statements made by applicants distributed to members, hustings organised, and members allowed to vote for their candidate. In this way it is anticipated that the best candidate can be chosen- one that represents that community and works for them.

  11. Tafia says:

    As well as a Labour Party being weak and pointless over a handful of people messing it about over pretend gender, a Labour Party being weak over the fact that All Women shortlists are actually sexist and all BAME short list are racist , we witness Labour Party being weak and gutless over ritual slaughter – and I include Jewish Shechita as well as Islamic Ḏabīḥah as well as any other form of unacceptable animal slaughter. The standard methods are bad enough (and I’m not vegetarian) but the religious methods are an absolute disgrace and should be banned.

    We now see schools forcing the consumption of ritually slaughtered meat on their pupils and banning them from bringing in non compliant foodstuffs.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5794465/Fury-draconian-school-bans-packed-lunches.html

    And the Labour Party remains silent over this while tying itself in knots over exactly what sex a bloke who wears a skirt is.

    What a joke.

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