It took female MPs from both parties to change Starmer’s stance on gender politics
Isabel Hardman/ The Guardian:
Did Keir Starmer finally realise what being a leader meant this summer? No, not the Labour leader’s heroic rescue of a lost dog while on holiday, but his decision to enter the bitter gender debate and back a reversal of his party’s policy on allowing people to self-declare a new gender identity on official documents.
For the past few years, Starmer has largely avoided talking about it, save to complain that the debate is “too toxic”. It certainly has far too much poison in it, but Starmer is one of the people with the most power to change that by coaxing the debate in a better direction. It’s just taken him a while. There has been a visible change in the party since its national policy forum dropped the self-identification policy in July. Its MPs and activists now say they feel more confident in saying biological sex is important, after years of fearing a furious backlash from across the party.
Starmer isn’t leading all that much, but benefiting from a realignment in politics that has been under way for some time. We are all very familiar with the debate about sex-based rights and transgender equality. We know its roars, culture wars and bitter recriminations. Some Tories plan to “weaponise” it at the next election, claiming that Starmer can’t be trusted to know what a woman is. Rishi Sunak told the first of his two leadership contests last year that the left wanted to “cancel our women”. It was a weird use of the possessive pronoun. It was also a sign that politicians saw what had previously been quite a niche concern as a campaign tool, even if that made a sensitive debate even harder to conduct in a civil fashion. But, below the fury, many of us have missed the way this debate has also broken down party boundaries. It has brought together a group of MPs who are in no way like-minded.
One of them is Baroness Jenkin. The joke among Westminster women used to be that if you’d met Anne Jenkin, she’d probably already have asked you to become a Tory MP. A determined, slightly eccentric figure who often cycles around Westminster with light-up wheels on her bike, she has spent years trying to increase the number of women being elected for her party, identifying and coaching them through the candidates process. Now, though, if you meet her, she’s more likely to ask you to join her campaign for sex-based rights – and you definitely don’t need to have any Conservative beliefs at all. Jenkin and Conservative colleagues found themselves offering a safe space to Labour MPs who were at odds with their party’s policy on gender self-identification. The most high-profile of these is Rosie Duffield, who has previously said she feels as though she is in an “abusive relationship” with her party – hardly something she would say lightly, given that she also escaped domestic abuse a few years ago. Even though the gender-critical Tories enjoy spending time with Duffield, she is manifestly not one of them: she disagrees vehemently with the two-child benefit limit, for instance, and doesn’t have much truck with the other views of the more strident Tory campaigners such as Miriam Cates. Yet she and other Labour women have ended up confiding in those Conservatives because they have found the atmosphere in their party so hostile for the past few years.
Jenkin says: “It’s easier for us Conservatives than it is for the other [parties], and so we’ve given these women moral support and company because it has been so lonely for them. And a lot of blokes just think it’s a women’s fight, even though of course when they come out in support of us, they don’t get anything like the abuse Rosie and others get because they’re men.”
Many of these women regularly join cross-party meetings held in parliament for politicians worried about the erosion of sex-based rights. They were set up two years ago by the three gender-critical campaign groups in the main parties: Labour Women’s Declaration (LWD), Conservatives for Women and Liberal Voice for Women. Initially, they met monthly and over Zoom – more recently their meetings, private and under the Chatham House rule, have gone weekly. They include peers and MPs who gather to hear from experts in sex and gender, transgender people, people who have detransitioned and clinicians.
The numbers have gradually been growing – and more Labour figures have started coming along recently too, as well as SNP figures including Joanna Cherry. It is striking, though, that the Chatham House rule, probably the most frequently broken rule in politics by MPs happy to leak against each other, is one the attendees really do stick to. It’s also striking that Jenkin spends a lot of her time telling Conservative colleagues that they need to speak up more and do some of the heavy lifting on gender. And there are many more Labour frontbenchers who privately call themselves gender critical than there are out and about. Duffield isn’t the only Labour MP to campaign on this: Tonia Antoniazzi and Karin Smyth have also shrugged off heckling from their party colleagues when speaking on this in the chamber, but they have studiously avoided criticising their own leadership because that tends to get Labour backs up even more than expressing a view on biology.
Across all the parties, though, there is a whisper network of people who quietly agree with each other, or secretly meet, rather like an underground church or a resistance movement behind enemy lines.
Everyone involved agrees that the gender-critical movement in politics was slow to get going, and didn’t notice the many changes to policy that ministers, public agencies and other organisations were agreeing to without much public fuss – until it almost seemed too late.