Labour at war over debate on trans rights The Times 22.02.20

The original article is here.

In the 1960s it was Labour that was instrumental in decriminalising homosexuality. Three decades on and an equal age of consent, civil partnerships and the right of gay and lesbian couples to adopt were pioneering Labour achievements that irrevocably changed the social fabric of Britain.

Now the party, for whom the equalities agenda has always been a unifying and galvanising force, is at odds with itself over an issue — a person’s right to self-identify their gender — about which many of its members, let alone voters, have little knowledge and less understanding.

It has dragged the candidates to succeed Jeremy Corbyn into a culture war and led Tony Blair, the former prime minister who is seen as having done more than most to advance the cause of equality, to decry the “finger-jabbing, sectarian” battle over transgender rights.

Unless the issue is contained, Mr Blair warned, Labour would be perceived as little more than a pressure group.

The issue exploded over the otherwise reasonably civil Labour leadership race this month when all the candidates were asked to sign a 12-point trans “pledge card”. Many of the points were uncontroversial, but one called on Labour to expel “transphobic” members.

This ignited an argument that is still raging. Rebecca Long Bailey signed the pledge, and so did Lisa Nandy. But Sir Keir Starmer, the frontrunner, did not and the row is now dominating hustings and public debate. One senior campaign aide said that the issue was becoming increasingly difficult to navigate and could do long-term damage to the party in an area where it has traditionally been strong.

“I think we are all in a bit of a bind,” the aide said. “We want to be the party of equality but there is a risk that we are seen to be obsessed by this and are tearing ourselves apart. The tone on both sides has been blown out of all proportion.”

The aide added that the argument was, in part, born out of a “generational divide” on the left. “On one side you have women in their forties, fifties and sixties who identify with the feminist movement. They find the idea of self-identification very challenging. On the other you have women in their twenties and thirties who are much more relaxed about this and for whom it is an equalities issue.

“The reality is that this debate impacts very few people but emotions run very, very high. People feel that the way we are defining what it means to be a woman is changing. There is no room for nuance.”

Jess Phillips, who dropped out of the race last month, said she deeply regretted that the issue had come to define the contest in the media. “This has literally never been raised with me on the doorstep,” she said. “All gender politics in this race appear to have boiled down to this one issue that a small number of people care very deeply about. As a result I worry that we are not addressing very serious issues such as domestic violence or women’s pay. As an opposition we cannot become irrelevant.”

Neither side appears to be willing to compromise. Some foresee that the issue will be used by the Tories to portray Labour as a party of extremes.

As one longstanding Labour staff member put it: “I’d rather have a debate about Israel and Palestine than this. Everyone else must think we’ve gone completely mad.”

The candidates’ stance

“The way we’ve allowed one group of women’s rights to be pitted against another is disgraceful.” Lisa Nandy

“We are the party that is the social and moral compass of the UK, and we expect our members to be out there changing the culture, and fostering a culture based on respect and love.” Sir Keir Starmer

“Transphobic views are not welcome within our party. That doesn’t shut down discussion, but it must be conducted in a respectful way.” Rebecca Long Bailey