The face of a man who doesn't know what a woman is. Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

September 26, 2022   5 mins

Are feminists welcome in the Labour Party? I mean the old-fashioned kind of feminist, who knows the difference between men and women. The answer appears to be that we’re not. Delegates to this year’s party conference in Liverpool will be able to browse stalls outside the main hall, talking to activists about everything from climate change to animal welfare. What they won’t be able to do is speak to representatives of the Labour Women’s Declaration, an organisation that advocates for women’s sex-based rights and single-sex spaces. It has been denied a stall at conference along with FiLiA, which last year organised the largest feminist conference in this country for decades.

The party claims the decision was taken on commercial grounds, which makes no sense at all; both organisations offered to pay the going rate for a stall and said they were flexible about size and position. Rates are advertised on the party’s website, which boasts that “exhibiting at our Conference is a unique opportunity to increase awareness of your aims and objectives to a wider audience and reach influential groups of people”. Not, however, if your aim is to defend the fact that human beings can’t change sex.

Appeals to the party to change its mind have been rejected, even after more than a dozen Labour MPs and peers signed a letter to The Observer calling for a rethink. The signatories included Dame Diana Johnson MP, current Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and Lord Triesman, a former Foreign Office minister and former general secretary of the party. There was a time when such luminaries would have been listened to, but not anymore. Now the party likes women who sign emails with their pronouns and declare themselves “trans allies”, such as the individual who screamed abuse at a man holding his baby at a women’s rally in Brighton last weekend. Carly-May Kavanagh (“she/her”) turned out be an aide to a Labour MP, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who shot to public attention a couple of years ago when he accused J.K. Rowling of using her experience of sexual assault to attack trans people.

Depressingly, this view probably isn’t unusual in the Labour Party, given its current attitudes to women. In the run-up to the May council elections, a Labour canvasser knocked on my door in West London to ask for my vote. I greeted him warmly and said I had a couple of questions. “What is a woman?”, I asked politely, but he declined to answer. “It’s not a local issue,” he claimed, ignoring the fact that half the local population is female. When I asked if he supported the principle of single-sex spaces, he bridled. “As a member of the local LGBTQi community, I don’t feel comfortable answering that question,” he told me. He is now a Labour councillor.

Women hoping for an unequivocal statement from Sir Keir Starmer about our right to speak openly about biological sex will be disappointed. The Labour leader has repeatedly failed to condemn harassment of feminists in the party, who have been targeted by “pledges” and motions threatening “transphobes” with expulsion. Instead of standing up for free speech and women’s rights, as you might expect a former Director of Public Prosecutions to do, Starmer has proved himself anything but an ally. “Trans women are women,” he intones, holding to this line as firmly as devout Catholics preach transubstantiation.

Here is the result: with the eager assistance of members of his front-bench team, Starmer has deterred substantial numbers of women, including members of the party, from voting Labour. It’s an agonising situation for many of us on the Left and centre-Left, who desperately want an end to 12 years of Conservative government, but have watched aghast as the Labour Party opened its arms to trans activists. Now Boris Johnson has been replaced as prime minister by Liz Truss, a hard-Right ideologue who actively opposes the redistribution of wealth, Labour should be facing an open goal. Instead, we have a leader who last week warned republicans to show respect to people mourning the death of the Queen, while displaying no respect at all to women in his own party.

He doesn’t answer letters or emails describing the abuse we’ve faced. (I’ve sent him two about misogyny in the party.) And he can’t even bring himself to condemn attacks on meetings of Labour women with smoke bombs. (He can’t say he doesn’t know about any of this because I told him to his face at a Labour Women’s Network dinner in April.) In the face of intemperate and frankly deranged attacks by gender extremists on women who have supported Labour for decades, Starmer has observed a Trappist silence.

In the Seventies, Labour governments passed ground-breaking legislation on equal pay and sex discrimination. Now the party has been captured by an extreme ideology which, to anyone with half a brain, is an excuse for an outpouring of misogyny. We don’t know the exact number of trans people in this country but they appear to be vastly outnumbered by self-styled trans activists, who turn up at women’s events wearing home-made masks and balaclavas. They threaten us with sexual violence and their aim is to intimidate women into silence, driving home the message that we are no longer entitled to single-sex spaces. But instead of getting support from leading Labour politicians, all we get is trans slogans and hyperbolic claims about the “oppression” of trans people.

As far as we know, not a single trans woman has been murdered in this country since 2018. This is good news, but it’s drowned out by claims that trans women are more likely to be killed than natal women. It isn’t true: two or three women are killed every week by current or former partners, while matricide is a much more common crime than people realise. According to the Femicide Census, 141 women were killed by a male suspect in 2021; in the years between 2009 and 2018, the figure was 1,425 women and girls aged 14 and over. Reported rapes are at a record level in England and Wales, reaching 70,330 in 2021/22, but few rapists ever see the inside of a courtroom. A steep downward trend is visible in domestic violence prosecutions, which fell from almost 125,000 six years ago to 76,965 in 2019/20. All of this amounts to an epidemic of violence against women, not trans people, so why do Labour politicians spend so much time talking about the latter?

It’s becoming clear that the conflict is not between feminists and a small number of trans people who, in any case, have the same rights as the rest of us. It’s between growing numbers of women and what is in effect a profoundly misogynist men’s rights movement, which has seized the opportunity provided by weak leadership in the Labour Party. (To be fair, the Lib Dems, SNP and Greens are just as culpable.) When it refused to allow feminist organisations to have stalls at this year’s conference, Labour picked a side — and it’s the wrong one. But feminists in the Labour Party are not going away.

This evening, the Labour Women’s Declaration will host a sold-out meeting outside the main conference area in Liverpool. It will be chaired by Tonia Antoniazzi, Labour MP for Gower and Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland, and speakers include Dame Diana Johnson. I’m speaking about why making misogyny a hate crime, as the Labour MP Stella Creasy advocates, would harm women, because it will lead to a torrent of vexatious complaints from trans activists.

Hopefully, some of those Labour Party luminaries in attendance will be listening. With honourable exceptions, such as Antoniazzi and Rosie Duffield MP, Starmer’s party has got this issue badly wrong. It is freezing out feminists when it should be supporting women whose reasonable views are met with terrifying threats. It’s time for the Labour leader to ask himself: does he want to go down in history as the man who allowed misogyny to run riot in his party?

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.