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The Labour Party and gender-critical women

A modern history of mistreatment

Artillery Row

Sue Lent has been a member of the Labour Party for more than 40 years, and a well-regarded Cardiff councillor for 25 years. This summer she received a reprimand from the party’s national office for “conduct that was prejudicial and grossly detrimental to the Labour Party” and was issued with a reminder of conduct (a warning to follow the rules) that would remain on her record for twelve months.

Lent’s crime? On Facebook she shared, without comment, an article suggesting that Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) was an autogynephile: a man who derives sexual pleasure from thinking of himself as a woman.

It’s not the first time Lent has been in trouble with the party. In 2018, she appeared before a Labour Party Wales disciplinary panel to explain her reasons for sharing an article by Janice Turner about the eradication of the word “woman”. No action was taken, but later that year, she received a letter reprimanding her for using the phrase “male-bodied people” in a Facebook post. In 2020, she was investigated at a national level for a series of Facebook posts, though again the matter was dropped.

Throughout this period, Lent has been subjected to sustained online attacks from party members, leading to hostile articles in the Welsh media. A former social worker, her views have led to her being removed from council committees such as the adoption panel: “Suddenly I’m not fit to be on anything to do with children.”

Hers is not an isolated case. Launched in 2019 and currently signed by over 7,500 supporters, the Labour Women’s Declaration (LWD) states that women have the right to maintain their sex-based protections, including female-only spaces such as changing rooms and hospital wards. Following experiences of harassment and smears, LWD activists organise mostly in secret. “Tedious, low-level bullying and silencing of women, and of lesbians in particular” has sometimes been combined with disciplinary action by the party, a spokeswoman says. As in Lent’s case, the letters from the national office tell women they must not speak to anyone about the disciplinary process.

She was told there was no right of appeal

For those on the receiving end, the experience is distressing. Carol Angharad, 77, is a longstanding lesbian campaigner, Labour Party activist and a councillor in Belper, Derbyshire. After posting tweets in support of sex-based rights, she was reprimanded by the regional Labour Party and required to write a letter of apology to the local Pride group. In November 2020, the national party told her that she had contravened its social media policy and that a warning of possible expulsion would stay on her file for eighteen months. She has been subject, she says, to “three years of intimidation and harassment, much of it conducted publicly on Facebook, and has had her Facebook account hacked. After she and others complained about the “abusive and libellous” Facebook posts written about her, she was told by the regional Labour Party director that the posts did not breach party policy and no action would be taken. 

When Mandy Clare, a councillor in Cheshire West and Cheshire, was elected to the party’s National Women’s Committee (NWC), another prominent national activist began calling for her constituency party and others to denounce her for her gender-critical views. Clare’s attempts at NWC meetings to raise women’s experience of being bullied were cut off and not minuted. When she signed the LWD, fellow committee members and members of her constituency party put out a stream of tweets accusing her of transphobia. She asked the national party to investigate the intimidation directed at her, but it refused. She was told there was no right of appeal. 

Clare was removed by her local party as a candidate for the ward she already represented. After being shortlisted to stand for another ward, she was hauled before a three-strong panel to determine whether she could stand as a Labour councillor. She was not told which social media posts she was to be questioned on, or allowed to bring another person to the interview or record what happened. At the interview, she was asked to explain posts she’d made encouraging women to speak out. It was, she says, “a really shoddy process from start to finish”. She was told she had brought the Labour Party into disrepute, and was being removed from the councillors’ selection panel. Clare resigned from the party and now sits as an independent. 

The Labour Party’s determination to stamp out views supporting sex-based rights has led to the loss of committed, capable activists who in normal circumstances would be considered an asset. Karen Ingala Smith, CEO of domestic abuse charity NIA and a lifelong Labour supporter, had her application to join the Labour Party turned down because she had “engaged in conduct online that may reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility based on gender identity”. 

Starmer has refused to condemn the abuse

Is there any chance that this might change? Some think the party’s stance might be softening: Lent’s most recent letter referred to her legal right, since the Forstater judgement, to express gender-critical views. In a recent interview with Mumsnet, Keir Starmer appeared to support the right of women to single-sex sports. 

Yet Starmer has refused to condemn the abuse Rosie Duffield MP has received for supporting single-sex spaces, even claiming that Duffield was “wrong” to say only women could have a cervix. In 2020, LWD prepared a dossier of incidents in which women had been bullied to share with the party’s general secretary, David Evans. He cancelled their agreed meeting, and LWD has been unsuccessful in its attempts to secure a new date. At the party conference in September this year, LWD and Lesbian Labour were both refused stalls within the main conference hall, despite space being available.

Unfortunately for the Labour leadership, the party’s attempts to suppress dissent have had the effect of making women more determined to be heard. In Scotland, senior female members are said to be “boiling with rage” at the party’s support for Nicola Sturgeon’s reform of the Gender Recognition Act, which would allow people legally to change their sex, with minimal checks, from the age of sixteen. 

The LWD spokeswoman points out that the “policy capture is unbelievably insidious and relentless”, affecting not just political parties but trade unions and nearly all public bodies, including the NHS and civil service. LWD is preparing for the long haul: “The challenge everywhere of establishing evidence-based policy on sex and gender is massive. As Labour members our focus is on our party. Unless it stops censoring women’s voices, including within the parliamentary party, it stands no chance of developing robust policies on sex.”

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