We need to talk about where the trans self-id debate is taking Labour

by Rob Marchant

Last Tuesday, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner stated her view that Rosie Duffield – yes, the Rosie Duffield who has been a champion of women’s rights and bravely declared her own domestic abuse story to Parliament – should “reflect” on the fact that she had “liked” a tweet which described transgender people as “cross-dressers”.

Although Rayner attempted to paint the debate as “toxic”, with “both sides” needing to calm down, this was a somewhat disingenuous deflection; there is no doubt about which “side” she herself has chosen and her criticism of Duffield was clear enough. She was felt to be “upsetting” people.

It is also well documented that, during the leadership campaign earlier this year, Rayner – along with Lisa Nandy and Corbynite challenger Rebecca Long-Bailey – enthusiastically endorsed the idea of self-id for trans folk.

Let’s take a step back for a minute: Duffield did not tweet anything herself. She “liked” a tweet by Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who lost their job for speaking out about her opposition to self-id,  which used a term, “cross-dresser”, which – as Forstater herself points outis frequently used by some trans people themselves. For the record, J K Rowling writes poignantly about Forstater’s case, as well as her own story of domestic abuse, here.

Ah, but she had previous, you say. Duffield tweeted that “only women have a cervix”, which is seen as “exclusionary”. She was then clearly pressured into making an apology. Seriously? Is this what the Labour Party has become, that someone is forced to apologise for stating a biological fact?

That is apparently all you need to do, in the modern Labour Party, to be found guilty of thoughtcrime and asked to “reflect” on how you have “upset” people. Indeed, I myself have probably already invited abuse and social media pile-ons already, via the last few, pretty anodyne paragraphs, and probably added insult to injury by mentioning the now-unmentionable-in-polite-Party-circles Rowling.

But let’s talk about her anyway. A couple of months later, she penned this blog piece:

Yep, sounds like a real bigot, there. No doubt at all.

But that’s where we are: for her trouble in revealing her innermost secrets and using them to talk about the likely negative impact of self-id on decades of hard-fought women’s rights, she was the subject of an international social media and press pile-on, numerous death threats and, of course, heavy criticisism by a large number of celebrities, artists and politicians. Finally, the widespread, attempted “cancelling” of Rowling has been supposedly sealed by the – as Nick Cohen points out here, laughable – notion that her latest novel is “transphobic”.

How on earth did we get here?

This is not the Monday Club. This is the Labour Party, a party with a long history of standing up for the rights of minorities (we will park for now the anti-Semitism issue). This issue is different, though. This is not the new “gay rights” that many of its adherents think.

But pronouns have now become weapons. The very language that we use has itself become explosive.

More importantly, it has often had to modify to accommodate the demands of a small but vocal group of trans activists (not, it is important to note, all trans people). As George Orwell could have told you, those who control the language control the terms of the debate.

And debate is something there is surprisingly little of within Labour about this particular elephant in the room; largely because many Labour people – women in particular – are now refraining from talking about it for fear of online pile-ons, threats, or worse.

Yes, the subject is complicated and the debate charged. But Labour’s position on it is also in danger of becoming an unquestioning, groupthink exercise, an emperor’s-new-clothes world where to even debate the rights and wrongs is to be labelled a transphobe. This kind of mentality helps no-one, and in the end that includes trans people, too.

“Trans rights are human rights”, fine. We can all sign up to that. Indeed, who can argue with it? No-one in the Labour party wants to take away human rights from people.

But the reality is this: it’s an entirely meaningless slogan, unless you define what “trans rights” actually means.

Here’s a suggestion: we should stop talking about the trans rights debate in the Labour Party, because frankly that debate has already come down conclusively on the side of trans people. While there may yet be bigotry about trans people (and gay people, and women) left in this party, it is clearly in the minority. In this party, we’re not historically in the habit of coming down on people for being different, for how they dress or who they sleep with, and that’s a good thing.

No, we should be talking about the self-id debate, because that it is really what this comes down to.

This is fundamentally not a debate about what restrictions we put on people’s behaviour as was gay rights in the 1980s. It is simply, and no less charged for this, a debate about the labels we use.

We can debate all you like about what should be the criterion which allows a man to be re-labelled as a woman, or vice versa. The quite reasonable objection is whether anyone should be able to decide that themselves, unilaterally.

Why? Because any legal categorisation which depends on people self-identifying as being in that category is open to abuse, and therefore unworkable in practice. A person’s sex is no exception. There needs therefore to be a verifiable legal check before accepting a person has definitively changed their sex. The debate where there is indeed room for a lot of thinking and nuance, needs to be about what that check should be, not about whether or not it is necessary.

If you don’t think it is open to abuse, listen to this from Maajid Nawaaz on the white woman who “self-id’d” as black. Think about the sexual attack by a transgender woman on a 10 year-old in Morrisons’ toilets, and how women need safe spaces away from both men, and anyone who identifies as a woman but perhaps does not meet that legal check; the very real impact on women’s sport of people with essentially male bodies competing.

It is also undeniable that a minority of radical trans activists, inside and outside Labour, are acting in bad faith and operating with online bullying and insults, particularly shouting down women and other trans people who disagree with them. There is also frequently a clear misogynist undertone to such attacks. We should hesitate to associate ourselves with this minority.

If there is to be any real progress on trans rights, this minority needs to be called out and confronted. The reality is that such activists are potentially setting back the cause of trans rights decades, not to mention potentially triggering a backlash against the hard-won rights of gay, lesbian and bi people, by association. LGBT Labour is really not helping at the moment, by accepting with little challenge such arguments, as is not Stonewall. Both put at risk the extraordinary gains made for LGBT in the last thirty or so years, precisely by playing this new challenge so poorly.

Bottom line: this is not the new Section 28. It is much, much more complicated. It does not help when people like Rayner use this comparison lightly, as she did this week.

And if the logical points don’t convince, a practical one: this now-minority debate is going to increase in volume over the coming months and years. If Labour comes down on the wrong side of it, it has the real potential to deter large swathes of the public, particularly women, from voting Labour.

In short, about half the electorate will very likely soon have a problem with Labour, should it become a national issue, which it sooner or later will. Recent polls clearly back this up. And that is notwithstanding the effect of the issue on the party itself, where anger from feminists and others from all wings of the party about self-id is clearly on the rise.

We take this risk at our considerable peril:  the patience of the Great British Public with a party which has already spent a decade self-indulgently examining its own navel is not, after all, infinite.

Finally, think of the debate about men allowing them to declare themselves as women, with legal validity, as what it is: a political border dispute.

And you will never get agreement by talking to people on only one side of the border. Those on the other will see the incursion into their territory for what it is – an unlicensed land grab. Both sides have to agree new rules, and the party is engaging only with one.

Angela Rayner and a number of other prominent figures in the party have, and surely with the best of intentions, called this wrong.

But at some point, Keir Starmer as leader will have to steer the party towards common sense, because this issue will, otherwise, one day seriously damage Labour. There will be a big public debate at some point and it will be settled, believe you me, with Labour conclusively on the wrong side of history.

And if you think this is overblown, remember how a few lone voices wrote about Labour’s tolerance of extremism, and creeping anti-Semitism, almost a decade before it finally reached its peak in the party.

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


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24 Responses to “We need to talk about where the trans self-id debate is taking Labour”

  1. Alf says:

    Owen Jones is a Tory.

  2. A.J. says:

    My first response to this article was to piss myself laughing. Then I realised it’s no laughing matter and pasted a serious expression on my face. No, on second thoughts, it is truly hilarious.

  3. Tafia says:

    You need to drop this trans bollocks. It’s actually damaging to you. Your core vote regard it is the garbage wafflings of a middleclass metropoiltan elite who have got nothing better to talk about.

  4. John P Reid says:

    2,members fighting for women’s rights were also disciplined for alleged anti semitism Jennifer James and Charlie Allan( whos Jewish and called out Zionism in Israeli Government using strong language ( wrongly suspended in my view )

    Trans member Christina freeman
    put anti Semitic comments about Margaret hodge
    Also defending Israel excluding the government deflects from hoe badly women have been treated
    I was at the labour women’s declaration. Meeting in March and a woman started talking about Israel
    While no one there was anti Semitic
    Eveyond in The audience thought WTF

  5. DB says:

    The serious damage to the party isn’t an issue for the future, it’s happening now. I and many other women have already left the Labour Party and won’t be back, or vote for them, until they support women.

  6. Richard says:

    This is one of the most extraordinary political developments of my lifetime. Activists claiming to represent a small minority – I’ve met thousands of people but never a trans person – have effectively hijacked large parts of public life with their claims that “trans women are women”. Even the scientific establishment has paid lip service to this nonsense, so it’s not surprising that Lisa Nandy and Angela Rayner sing along.

    It really is time to stand up for reality. The activists’ results have been achieved largely by stealth, for the reason that their views will seem absurd to anyone not schooled in post-modern claptrap. Rob is right that the wider public is unlikely to be sympathetic as the damage becomes more apparent; the Tories seem to understand this, for the most part, and so should Labour, with its history of standing up for the rights of women.

  7. Jane Ayres says:

    Thank you for looking into this. Thousands of us agree with Rosie Duffield, and have been trying to be heard in the Party for a long while.
    Labour Women’s Declaration (with >5000 signatories to what we stand for) are holding a webinar on 20th October, if I’m allowed to link to that. Attendees don’t have to agree with us – just be polite https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lwd-speaking-up-for-womens-rights-in-the-labour-party-tickets-121569506667
    Again, thank you.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I think the point is that trans rights themselves do collide with women’s rights, or certainly what I’ve seen. There appears to be a perception that women cannot be called women any more, but rather become a subcategory of “cis women”. I’ve no idea why I have to have an assumption about my sexual orientation added to the description of my biological sex. I do understand why healthcare settings now try to talk in neutral terms about procedures that apply to biological women (like smear tests and childbirth), because I think trans men are getting absolutely forgotten in the aggro about changing rooms, but it is wholly disproportionate to erase descriptors that apply to 99% of service users (I. E. Women and mothers).

  9. Pauline Pollard says:

    Thank you for this article. As one of the people who has been made aware of this issue through the courage of J K Rowlings (a woman who is not acting out of transphobia but out of a principled stand for the rights of women) I am deeply disturbed at the extent of institutional and corporate capture by this gender identity politics – it is regressive and not in the interests of trans people, lesbians, gays or women – and actually not in the interests of men either. It is deeply misognisitc. The public as yet have not woken up but as more people speak out the risk is ever greater for Labour that it will be on the wrong side of history.

  10. Sarah Haynes says:

    This issue has the potential of breaking the Labour Party. I never thought I would be tempted to vote Tory but how on earth can I support a party that denies the basics of human reproduction? That has high profile members embracing policies that are just nonsensical? Convicted rapists in women’s prisons? Children who are making irreversible decisions about their future health and fertility? What?!

    And just the sheer insult to women that anybody who says so can be a woman. As if our bodies, our lived experience, mean nothing. We are human, too, you know. Different, but human. This is an utter shitshow and I’m glad it is getting a bit more attention, finally. All those female Labour MPs who signed the trans pledges (Rayner, Dawn Butler, Nandy, Zara Sultana, Nadia Whittome), have they really thought this through? I really despair over this.

  11. Georgina says:

    Yes, exactly this. Thank-you. Keir Starmer had better grow a pair pretty quick or labour’s vote will just haemorrhage even further.

  12. Warwick Alderman says:

    INSIDE THE MINCE PIE:

    Labour’s fixation on Trotskyist IDPOL is leading it to oblivion.

  13. A.J. says:

    Good to see these women – these biological women – standing up for themselves.

  14. A.J. says:

    Just how many blind alleys can the Left grope its way along? Think of a number then double it.
    My wife, once a NALGO shop steward, has now twice voted Tory. She lost a breast last year, expected, during chemotherapy and given the age she is, to go through the menopause. She knows – full well – how it is to be female.
    Personally, I still think voting for a clown like Johnson is a mistake, but the chances of Starmer ‘growing a pair’ seems pretty remote.
    The PLP still has a fair number of sensible women batting away. They simply don’t – at the moment – have much of a profile.

  15. A.J. says:

    Bridget Phillipson seems to have the right stuff.

  16. Jo Young says:

    Thank you for speaking out on this issue. I, like a lot of Labour women are feeling politically homeless right now. We cannot, in all consciousness, vote for a Party that disregards the needs of over half the population. We are, in the main, socialist women, many of whom campaigned against sec. 28 and have steadfastly voted Labour (in some cases for decades). We aren’t bigots, and have grown skins like rhinos from all the abuse and in many cases threats and doxxing we’ve been subjected to by our own comrades.

    Unlike most of the TWAW, TMAM etc. brigade who just recite mantras and call for the death of all “TERFs”, women like JKY (& myself) have spent years looking at all the arguments. Reading, listening and thinking about the issues raised by the trans lobby as well as those raised by women opposed to the removal of women’s and girl’s rights to safety and privacy. Evidence from North America, especially Canada, backs up the argument that when self ID came in, women’s rights and safety went out. Women & girls were collateral damage sacrificed on the bonfire of woke ideology. It appears the rape and assault of women (& children) doesn’t matter so long as Yaniv gets “her” balls waxed and other men, who never “identified” as women before, get easy access to refuges and women’s prisons and some of the most vulnerable women in society, especially indigenous women.

    Surely, as socialists we should be safeguarding everyone, including the young women detransitioners & children, with mental health conditions who are too young to consent to sex, yet are supposedly old enough to consent to life altering medicalision?
    Surely we should also be breaking down the concept of gender and encouraging the acceptance of butch women, femme men and other non-conformers without erasing over half the population.

  17. John P Reid says:

    Jo young nails the replies here
    We are politically homeless
    At the labour women’s declaration meeting in March it was suggested had party conference gone ahead we all resigned from the party zen made
    With a ultimatum
    When the LWD zoom meeting takes place next week
    I suggest for those who are still members ( I noticed in Twitter Capellost) on a Paul embery thread said he’s(?) still a member and don’t ask why
    Was commenting on Identity politics he received in labour emails
    That we still out this ultimatum
    And LWD team you with labour in it

    The Free speech union, Blue labour( it’s not particularly pro the Israel state , George Galloway workers party part , the SDP, and turning point ( dominque samuels seems to be pro socialist welfare and taxation even if they have free market thinkers in them

    There’s got to be something for a collective in the left on this

  18. Henrik says:

    I muse on the ability of Labour to focus on an issue which isn’t just irrelevant to the overwhelming bulk of the nation’s population (and electorate) but also, largely, incomprehensible.

    This is allowing party poiicy to be set by a few thousand crazed activists on Twitter. If I had my druthers, I’d ban politicians and media types from using – or reading – Twitter. They somehow get the idea that what’s said on there is in some way reflective or representative of how most people think.

    For the avoidance of doubt, most people who vote and live perfectly ordinary lives are probably just fine with people being trans, or gay, or whatever, they don’t particularly care, one way or the other, any more than they care whether someone is Scottish, has red hair or is tall. I think identity politics puzzle most folk and they struggle to find any relevance to their lives and core concerns in the incredibly complex, Jesuitical battles over tiny issues which characterise the Labour party now.

  19. A.J. says:

    Jo Young’s post makes me want to weep – breaking down the concept of gender? What on earth does that have to do with Labour politics – at all and especially at the moment? It’s simply more irrelevant navel-gazing. As for being ‘Woke’, does she not see the absolute irony of her position?
    Not a few of the women I met in the Labour Party circa 1985 were daft but well-meaning; not all feminists by any stretch of the imagination; some were simply bossy, po-faced and swimming in hypocrisy about health and education (of course I believe in comprehensive schools, my dear, but not for Clarissa). Yet I regretted the unseating of women like Ruth Smeeth and believe that Bridget Phillipson may be a Labour leader-in-waiting.
    But think again about ‘breaking down the concept of gender’ and all that meaningless, PC rubbish – the Labour Party already has a good deal to think about and will have an enormous amount more thinking to do when the dust finally settles on Covid. A rethinking of the relationship between political parties and the Welfare State will be unavoidable – beginning with the grotesque, bloated NHS – which is not invariably kind to women.

  20. John P Reid says:

    A.J
    There’s A Ben Elton Book “Popcorn” where a Director like Oliver stone is giving a talk on His Film (which is a bit like Natural born killers) where A Attractive white female (who’d been abused by her dad as A kid) I s dancing suggestively in A Bar in her underwear ,where a Older man gets turned on so starts to touch her up ,to which the female character objects and won’t take no for a Answer, so the female character brutally stabs him to death, in the Elton Book the Director shows how he’s displaying female empowerment Too which various Lefty film fans cheer him on as he’s showing a liberated female character who’s not afraid to dance half naked Sexually and use Viciousness to defend herself In the Popcorn Book the next character to speak is a Audience member of the Film review says to the Director, you’ve titillated the viewer with the scantily clad woman then showed violence for the audience to lap up its nothing to do with female empowerment it’s you the director showing your male fantasy of first a semi nude woman dancing shaking her curves then the male fantasy of female violence, ,the director objects I’m mirroring society, when do when do that in society asks the critic in the audience, the director says I’m not reflecting
    Society it’s a movie ,”Oh “said the critic “I thought you said you were reflecting society”

    At the time a criticism of the attitude of the book was “How can you be too Right on?” and when it was Said ,arguing that those who say people are too woke, have no point,”Exactly” said John Lydon “Billy bragg is about as politically in touch with normal people as Saddam Hussain, he’s not right on enough he should be as politically correct as Stalin”

    Hijab wearing Asian Muslim lefty writerIman Amrani
    Has called out the woke left in Society for just virtue signally for using their power as the middle class to define the working class as thick N racist, after all if the expression “why don’t you F off and join the tories” it implies that anyone not in favour with the current labour party ,who they can tell to F off and join the tories must be thick, for If the working class vote Tory ,they must be thick and also by being thick It’s only the working class who are racist

    This is Apparent in Karl Turner MP and more to the point Alex Sobel who has told Paul Embery to F off and join the tories ,twice and, called him A racist twice as It’s virtue signally his fanboys lap it up re tweet it agreeing saying wow yes aren’t we the good people we’re calling someone who’s working class and doesn’t have the privilege of out middle class life styles and areas a Thick Racist, Well this self enjoyment in the words of Iman Amrani
    Is them wan@king themselves off how cool they are and how they must be the good people, because they’ve called people they disagree with racist as such they’re applauded by their fan base as it plays into their fans thinking they’re the good people in society as they’re tweeting and liking each others comments where they call people they dislike racist because they know it must be true as they’ve decided it is true.

    https://twitter.com/ImaniAmrani/status/1316039011719426048

  21. Anne says:

    The area I have concern regarding trans women is in sport. Trans women will have built up muscle and have different hormone levels. We all know, for example, that steroids are banned substances in sport, – tests are undertaken at many major sporting events to prevent cheating. Many women in sport spend a good deal of time training in the gym to increase strength and stamina to complete in their sport – even at club level. How can trans women compete on a level playing field? Surely there is significant advantage for them.

  22. TM says:

    There has been no debate! As a lifelong labour voter and now ex member I am politically homeless and I feel so strongly about how toxic and misogynistic the party is that I will work tirelessly to ensure they never gain power again.

  23. A.J. says:

    TM, I don’t imagine that will require undue exertion on your part.

  24. John P Reid says:

    In 1987 with homeless millions unemployed
    A union boss after the election said at difference what the unions need to do is go to Maggie and Say what we’re prepared to give up, what the unions would want as he couldnt imagine labour winning again in his life time
    Frank field AT the time would suggest policies Maggie Would Nick

    Apart from Austerity or the fact labour don’t actually want to win
    If labour had a reason to win it would be doing a better job of investing in the North than the Tories, or labour needs to suggest policies the tories would be happy to Nick , ALA blue labour,
    Otherwise labour won’t have a reason to exist if it isn’t a serious party trying to win
    For decades

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