Just before the election, Keir Starmer finally found the third way on trans issues and women’s rights. First, he was damned by J.K. Rowling, who wrote in The Times that she would “struggle to support” Labour and suggested she might vote for an “independent candidate… campaigning to clarify the Equality Act”. Then, he was condemned by Attitude Magazine, which appended a lofty editorial to an open letter from the Labour leader. Starmer, it said, had been “equivocal” about trans issues.

Yet after all this noise, you would be hard pressed to find evidence that gender recognition reform and trans rights were ever an election issue. Kelly-Jay Keen’s Party of Women — the terf-ultras running on a platform of repealing the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) and removing “gender reassignment” as a protected characteristic from the Equality Act — not only failed to elect a single candidate (to be expected for a small, new party); it lost its deposit in all 16 seats it contested.

Transactivists, however, have equal reason for disappointment. Yes, the Liberal Democrats saw a huge surge with a pro-GRA reform manifesto; but the SNP, who actually attempted to put that reform into practice, suffered an equally remarkable collapse. Meanwhile, Reform only won five seats but took a larger vote share than the Lib Dems: their “contract” with the electorate promised to “ban transgender ideology” in schools.

There has been some talk that the success of independent candidates against Labour incumbents represents a “Left revolt” against Labour. But it’s notable that those takes don’t mention trans rights — and understandable, given that four of the five independent MPs in the new Parliament are conservative Muslims who ran on a pro-Gaza platform, and not natural allies of the gender-nonconforming (the fifth is Jeremy Corbyn).

For trans people, this apparent irrelevance after a decade as the hot button topic du jour must be disconcerting. For Labour, it’s probably a relief. Throughout Starmer’s leadership, gender ideology has been the sole issue on which the party could consistently be made to look weak. Indeed, the more that Labour demonstrated competence and discipline on the economy and foreign policy, the greater the incentive for interviewers to hammer the “but what is a woman?” button and see what headline-generating inanities would fall out of the shadow cabinet.

But by the time of the election, that had been substantially defused. Front benchers including Wes Streeting (for health and social care) and Shabana Mahmood (for justice) showed that they had engaged deeply and seriously with the problem of balancing rights between women and trans people. The Stonewall-endorsed thought-terminating cliches were out. Labour’s 2019 manifesto had committed to introducing gender self-declaration. In 2024, that pledge was gone: there was now a promise to protect single-sex exemptions, and implement the Cass Review’s recommendations.

From the vantage point of government, with a gargantuan majority and the first female chancellor, Labour may wish to flatter itself that its woman problem is over. Labour would be wrong to do so. Just because an issue is not electorally decisive, that doesn’t mean it’s politically unimportant. And although an issue may appear to have been neutralised at the ballot box, there is no reason to believe it will stay that way.

Trans issues can be classed as what the writer Helen Lewis has called a “brown M&M” test, after the band Van Halen which included a demand in their rider for “M&Ms with the brown ones removed”. This was once seen as evidence of spoiled rock star indulgence, but the M&Ms themselves were irrelevant: it was a way for Van Halen to check whether venues had read and followed all the band’s instructions, including the safety-critical ones about pyrotechnics. If there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, the band knew everything on stage needed to be double-checked.

In the same way, a politician’s ability to comprehend the detail of the Equality Act and the GRA should be taken as a test of their seriousness as a legislator. With a few honourable exceptions, Labour remains some way from passing. The manifesto, welcome as it was, also pledged to introduce a “trans-inclusive ban on conversion therapy” — something that is simply incompatible with the Cass Review’s insistence on preserving exploratory options for youth. This suggested that the Cass Review had perhaps not been fully absorbed by the manifesto’s authors.

Another commitment was to “simplify” the Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) process. Subsequent briefing suggested this meant moving to a model where one doctor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria was sufficient to change legal sex — more rigorous than self-ID, but barely so. There was also mention of removing the so-called “spousal veto”, which in reality is simply a provision for spouses of transitioners to annul the marriage before the GRC is issued, meaning no one has their sexuality unilaterally changed by state fiat. It’s an elegant solution to a difficult situation, and one that is much valued by the many wives of men who transition in midlife.

The unhappy implication is that Labour has been writing policy without listening to the people affected. This is a step up from the “government by Stonewall” that was the case up until very recently when it came to policy around gender identity, but it still betrays a sloppiness about the detail and a lack of care when it comes to women’s rights — an impression that is only reinforced by Labour representatives’ ongoing commitment to misunderstanding the Equality Act in public.

Take, for example, Margaret Hodge’s insistence that the Equality Act unambiguously protects women-only spaces, and any suggestion otherwise was “deliberate misunderstanding by the anti-woke establishment”. On the contrary: it is Stonewall rather than any “anti-woke establishment” that has been spreading an interpretation of the Equality Act which insists male people have legal access to female spaces. Meanwhile, the fact that there is an active case over whether women have the right to single-sex services (specifically, rape crisis counselling) shows the law as it stands is far from clear.

Gallingly, one of the many Labour spokespeople failing to understand the Equality Act is the same politician who originally piloted that law through parliament. In a 2022 interview, Harriet Harman pledged her allegiance to the belief that trans women are women, and went on to say: “We also need to recognise that in some respects there need to be same-sex services, which can be delivered and you can’t have a blanket exclusion of trans women, but in certain circumstances, in narrow circumstances, you can restrict those services.”

This is, generously, entirely incoherent. Harman seems not to understand that same-sex services are only possible through the “blanket exclusion” of trans women; nor is there any suggestion of how the “certain circumstances” would be determined. Speaking to Woman’s Hour this week, she continued to maintain in the face of all evidence that the Equality Act simply needs “guidance”, even though the legal meaning of sex is contested. Ideally, an inability to understand legislation you helped to draft would be considered disqualifying for high office; instead, in another sign that Labour does not take women’s rights altogether seriously, Harman has been tipped as the next head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Labour’s ongoing discomfort with the woman issue is manifest in the fact that it took three days after the election to appoint a minister for women and equalities. The trans issue has made this a poisoned brief. Whoever was appointed, it was guaranteed to outrage either LGBT Labour or the party’s gender-critical faction. Once again, Starmer appears to have found a third way. It was eventually announced on X that the job had gone to Anneliese Dodds, who shadowed it in unimpressive style, dismissing criticisms of GRA reform as “culture wars”.

Less fanfared is the fact that Dodds will be junior to Bridget Phillipson, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, and someone who has shown a more robust grasp of the issues. This looks like a way to give transactivists a visible win, while holding the actual political power closer to the ideological centre. That’s positive, but Labour needs more than savvy optics here: the implications of gender identity run too deep to be ignored.

The infected blood and post office scandals should be a warning that ethical derelictions by the state only become more grievous with time. The harms done to children who received unevidenced medical care under the guise of treating gender dysphoria, or to female prisoners forced to share accommodation with men for the sake of “inclusion”, will not disappear because the Government prefers not to see them. And, bluntly, many of the groups most afflicted by bad gender policy are relatively young and physically fit. Unlike haemophilia sufferers or retired postmasters, the Government will not be able to evade any eventual financial liability by simply waiting for them to die.

“The infected blood and post office scandals should be a warning that ethical derelictions by the state only become more grievous with time.”

But alongside the policy tangle around gender identity, these election results point to another dimension in Labour’s women problem. Though the party’s losses to independents in the midlands and north look like shocking upsets, in reality they are the outcome of Labour’s longstanding reliance on male-dominated “community leaders” in Muslim populations to mobilise the vote — networks known as biraderi, meaning “brotherhood”.

Although the biraderi were partly a reaction to Labour discrimination against Asian members, they perpetrated their own discrimination against Muslim women: in a 2016 Newsnight interview, female Muslim members of the Labour Party described how the biraderi had mobilised to slander and harass them in order to keep women out of local politics. But because the biraderi were helpful to Labour, they were allowed to go largely unchallenged.

This meant that Labour constituency parties had already ceded a large part of their local networks, and failed to build links with the younger Muslim community. When the biraderi decided to go their own way against Labour (mobilised through the Muslim Vote campaign), it was relatively simple to divert their campaigns to their preferred candidates. Had Labour paid attention to Muslim women’s own warnings about the stifling anti-democratic influence of the biraderi, perhaps this could have been mitigated. But women were ignored, and the consequences are now apparent.

Labour should not have to learn the same lessons over and over again. Women’s rights and interests are not a mere add-on. They are fundamental to a functioning society, and when women are disregarded, deeper problems follow. Starmer may be congratulating himself for now on having equally displeased both sides of the argument about gender. Instead, he should be asking himself how to make law and policy that is actually fit for purpose — for women, and for all. Trans issues did not decide this election. But a failure to reckon with them seriously will be an indictment of Labour’s future fitness to govern.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/