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Keir’s woman problem

Labour’s dishonest and weak handling of “the trans issue” hardly instils confidence that it will stand firm against sex denial extremists

This article is taken from the October 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In july this year, Keir Starmer uttered the words many a left-wing uterus-haver has been longing to hear. “A woman is an adult human female,” he told Nicky Campbell on Radio 5 Live, “so let’s clear that one up.” 

Yes, let’s! Not that anything needed clearing up to begin with. It’s not that this truth had become unknowable, so much as unsayable. 

In recent years, defining women in a way that everyone knows to be true has become an act of transgression (or, as Pink News reported it, “a transphobic dogwhistle”). Meanwhile, asking a politician to define “woman” is deemed a “gotcha”; that is, a question that shouldn’t be asked because it’s too challenging (if not linguistically then at least politically). 

Hence we ought to be grateful for Starmer’s act of bravery. Indeed, like many a would-be Labour-supporting feminist, I’m relieved that the man who looks set to become our next PM seems to have abandoned making idiotic claims such as “99.9 per cent of women don’t have a penis”. 

Sure, if I take a step back — say, imagine myself ten years ago — I’d have considered “I know what a woman is” to be less than the bare minimum when it comes to feminist pledges. Ditto “women can have their own toilets and refuges, probably”. We are living in different times, though. We’re all making do with less. 

The trouble is, I’m not sure women can even count on this much, should Labour come to power. It’s not that I anticipate a dramatic reversal, whereby Starmer rips off the mask and reveals himself to be a full-on sex denialist. It’s that Labour has hardly solved “the gender wars”. 

after years of hoping to ignore it, then attempting to pacify the most extreme trans activists while disregarding or even encouraging the abuse of feminists within the party, they’ve found it just won’t go away. On the contrary, things have only got worse, to the point where those who wished to remain aloof have been dragged into the fray. 

Starmer and others such as Anneliese Dodds have arrived to offer that much-needed “more light, less heat” just at the point when the conflict is practically irresolvable. The sad thing is, it really didn’t have to be this way. 

It would be wrong to claim that this is a mess entirely of Labour’s making. One of the most disturbing things about aggressive trans activism, and its accompanying denial of the salience of biological sex, is that this is a global phenomenon. It is a disaster for women, gender non-conforming children and same-sex attracted people the world over, not least because so many people in so many different countries have committed to beliefs and approved laws from which it is now very difficult to retreat. 

Nonetheless, each country has its own unique situation. In Britain, Labour had opportunities to challenge gender ideology that left-leaning parties in other countries lacked. Gender reassignment was already a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act, for which the party could claim credit. Attempts to reform the Gender Recognition Act and make self-identification easier arose under the Tories, with then-Equalities minister Maria Miller dismissing all critics as “fake feminists”. 

Feminist groups such as Woman’s Place UK, who organised to challenge, amongst other things, Stonewall’s misrepresentation of the law, have tended to be explicitly left-wing. 

Unlike in the US, where the issue is divided on strict party lines, and expressing misgivings about childhood transition places you firmly in the Republican camp, in the UK there was the chance for a mainstream left-wing party to say “this isn’t progressive” — or, at the very least, for them to avoid facilitating the spiralling extremism. 

As many feminists have pointed out, trans activism is not left-wing

As many feminists have pointed out, trans activism is not left-wing. It might superficially appear that way due to its piggy-backing on the gay rights movement and appropriation of the language of social justice, but it is essentially individualistic, a glittery extension of Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”. It ignores the relational and hierarchical aspects of gender in favour of authoritarian demands that one’s self-perception be privileged at all times (what other movement has been so obsessed with controlling how others speak about you even when you are not present?). 

It is not accidental that companies that rank highly on Stonewall’s UK Workplace Equality Index have less than impressive gender pay gap figures. It is far less costly to ask employees to put pronouns in their email signatures than it is to reform workplace structures in order, for instance, to accommodate carers. 

Neither is it accidental that countries such as Iran and Malta, which have appalling records on human rights for women and gay people, have led the way in promoting gender transition. There’s a form of right-wing extremism that says people’s personalities and sexual identities must be reformed to “match” their sexed bodies, and there’s one that says people’s sexed bodies must be surgically altered to “match” their desires. Both are inhumane — it is obscene that choosing between the two has been positioned as a choice between left and right. 

Thanks to the work of left-wing feminists, including the party’s own much-vilified Rosie Duffield, Labour could have made this case. It would have been poorly received by many, but I doubt, given the Tories’ performance, it would have destroyed their election chances. If anything, it may have contributed to a small cultural shift, forcing those who have unquestioningly embraced trans activism as being on “the right side of history” to consider the issue a little more. The rights that Labour had already won for trans people could, in this instance, have offered some protection against attacks. 

I’m not suggesting this would have been an easy tightrope to walk. Then again, when was it ever going to get easier? One of the few things that made me laugh in Anneliese Dodds’s recent Guardian piece on Labour “leading on reform of transgender rights” was her pious declaration that “responsible politics is not about doing what is easy, it’s about doing what is right”. As though we are now at a stage where there is an “easy” resolution, but Labour are nobly refusing to take it. 

There isn’t an easy resolution. Things have escalated too far. Even if feminists shut up forever, biological sex will continue to exist, and a small but incredibly influential group of people will continue to be furious about it. There is no middle way in this. Ask any woman who tried to be the voice of reason in 2020, when Starmer thought the best way forward was just to tell everyone to “stop chucking bricks at each other”. What, I wonder, did he think would happen next? 

Labour’s “new” take on “the trans issue” is entirely predictable. You can imagine it being sketched out on a flipchart. One, adopt the tone of a weary parent who is sick of the children fighting; two, act incredibly affronted about the Tories having the nerve — the sheer nerve! — to exploit the open goal created by the left’s embrace of the worst extremes of trans activism; three, keep emphasising that you’re not going to please everyone, but you’ll do the right thing, in the hope that annoying both sides will create the illusion that you’ve found a magic compromise (biological sex half-exists, or something). 

It is not, overall, a terrible tactic. It is patronising and dishonest, to be sure, but it does have the effect of inhibiting criticism in anyone who wishes to appear nuanced and reasonable. One doesn’t wish to appear ungrateful, not least because there’s the distinct feeling that unless women show sufficient appreciation for the concessions that have been made, we’ll be back to square one. He’s said women are adult human females! They’ve said single-sex spaces will be protected in some as yet-undefined way! Don’t push it, ladies!

I’m not sure Labour are in a position of needing to make promises at all

I am not convinced, however, that this promises anything. What’s more, I’m not sure Labour are in a position of needing to make promises at all. They will win the next election, and inherit an economy in a ruinous state. The hard left will continue to portray everything Starmer does as motivated by sinister Blairite principles. Disentangling the Gordian knot of sex denialism just won’t be a priority. 

Gender ideology might not appeal to the average voter, but it is now deeply embedded in HR departments, academia, publishing and the media. It might not be something into which Starmer buys personally, but it will remain part of his social and cultural milieu for many years to come. As a luxury belief, it offers absolution to a certain type of privileged leftist who hates being the beneficiary of rising inequality.

Pretending not to know what a man or a woman is — precisely because it is so absurd — can make anyone feel like a radical. The longer we face harsh economic times, particularly under a Labour government, the more, I suspect, certain elite groups will fall back on compensatory pseudo-radicalism. 

There will, eventually, be an unravelling, but it will not be because Labour, at this particular point in time, feels the need to respond to “you don’t know what a woman is” goading. The tragedy is that we are further down this road than we needed to be, had Labour had a little more courage. 

The “what is a woman?” question was never about actual beliefs. It was an integrity test, one to which providing variable answers constitutes a definite fail. Starmer might know the factually correct answer now, but he can always un-know it. We should not be surprised if, one day, he decides he needs to do so. 

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