Starmer’s silence

Why won’t Labour stand by women?

Artillery Row

I want to vote Labour, I really do. I watched Sir Keir Starmer speak in the House of Commons on Monday, applauding every word. He sounded principled and compassionate, making Boris Johnson look like an unfeeling buffoon. Only 24 hours earlier, however, Starmer failed a test that matters just as much to me and many other left-leaning women.

On Sunday, Rosie Duffield MP published a series of anguished tweets about the latest round of abuse she’s received from current and former members of the Labour Party. She has repeatedly been accused of “transphobia”, a slur that’s used against anyone who challenges the claims of trans extremists. 

Duffield said she would not be attending the party conference because of concerns for her safety

Duffield furiously denied an allegation that she has moved 200 miles from her Canterbury constituency, revealing she is so distressed by “obsessive harassment” that she is considering her future in the party. “Neither the Labour Party or either the former or current Leader or the Whips’ Office have done anything at all to stop it, to offer me any support, help or legal assistance,” she said.

Starmer should have acted instantly, denouncing the abuse and assuring Duffield of his support. He didn’t, maintaining a silence that is profoundly disappointing to feminists who have watched the bullying of Duffield with a growing sense of horror. 

It was left to a Labour peer, Jenny Chapman, to say she was sorry Duffield feels that way and insist that there is no place for abuse in the Labour Party. Really? That’s not how it looks to Labour members like me, who have seen local parties pass motions denouncing feminists as “transphobes” and falsely claiming we are funded by the Christian right.

All of this began in July 2020, when Duffield liked a tweet by Piers Morgan, mocking an American cancer charity for using the phrase “individuals with a cervix” instead of “women”. When Duffield was accused of transphobia, she responded by asking whether it was transphobic to know that only women have a cervix. Cue outrage, including demands that Duffield should be disciplined by the party or have the whip withdrawn. One of Labour’s affiliated organisations, the egregious LBGT+ Labour, actually demanded “reparations” — and wasn’t called out by the leadership.

In September last year, after Duffield said she would not be attending the party conference because of concerns for her safety, Starmer was cornered on live TV by Andrew Marr, who repeated Duffield’s question. Starmer squirmed, looking like a man whose nearest and dearest were being held at gunpoint off-screen. In the end, he managed to squeak out that saying only women have a cervix “is something that shouldn’t be said, it is not right”. 

Sadly, Starmer is by no means the only front-bench figure to have made such a fool of himself, demonstrating how gender ideology has gripped the highest reaches of the Labour Party. Shadow foreign secretary David Lammy apparently believes that a trans woman can follow “various procedures” and acquire a cervix, for example. It’s the neck of the uterus, for God’s sake — an organ that natal men don’t have.

It’s important to point out, however, that all this nonsense about the cervix is a substitute for something much more ominous. Accusations of “transphobia” are a means of asserting power, a reminder that it’s dangerous to challenge the reactionary and unscientific ideology of trans extremists. That’s why the attacks are so disproportionate, treating unexceptional remarks as though they are on a par with making a public commitment to satanism. Monstering a public figure deflects attention from what they’ve actually said, scaring anyone who’s thinking of supporting them.

Only this week LGBT+ Labour was in action again, withdrawing an invitation to the journalist Helen Lewis, who had agreed to take part in a panel to celebrate the first openly gay MP, Maureen Colquhoun. Colquhoun was a lesbian — nothing to do with being trans — but of course LGBT+ Labour had to drag up the issue. Discovering that the group didn’t like Lewis’s views on self-ID for trans people, it announced that “the organisation stands in total solidarity with our trans siblings.” The invitation was apparently “an oversight which we have corrected”.

If ever there was a moment to speak out against misogyny in the party, this is it

This, I’m afraid, is the kind of authoritarian nonsense that Starmer’s silence has enabled. It is making countless women wonder how long we can continue to support a party that silences us and tolerates calls for us to be expelled, a dilemma that is becoming more acute now that Johnson is on the ropes. It’s starting to look as though Labour has a real chance of returning to power, where it could reverse cuts to public services and restore a sense of decency to public life. But the Leader of the Opposition can’t even bring himself to denounce the relentless harassment of one of his own MPs, a woman who is especially vulnerable because she’s survived domestic abuse in the past.

What does that say to other women in the party, who have witnessed the violent tactics of trans extremists with our own eyes? I have been at a meeting of Labour women where activists let off smoke bombs to scare us into thinking the building was on fire; I have had to walk past posters that declare “suck my dick, you transphobic cunts”. Meetings have to be organised in secret, simply so we can discuss how to defend existing legal rights, such as keeping prisons single sex.

Starmer is not a stupid man, which suggests that his silence — and his support for self-ID if Labour wins the next election — is a conscious choice. Maybe he thinks feminists have nowhere else to go, gambling on the fact that the other opposition parties — the Lib Dems, the Greens, the SNP — have also failed us abysmally. But this is not the first time that women in this country have been abandoned by mainstream politicians. The suffragettes couldn’t withhold their votes because women didn’t have them, but they mounted a very effective campaign to remedy that injustice.

A generation of towering Labour women — Margaret Bondfield, Barbara Castle, Jennie Lee — must be turning in their graves. What would they make of a Labour leader who has staked his reputation and authority on not knowing what a cervix is? If ever there was a moment to speak out against misogyny in the party, this is it. When Labour is afraid even to say what a woman is, it is time for us to withdraw our labour until sense and decency prevail.

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