He can't say he wasn't warned (NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images)

January 30, 2023   5 mins

He can’t say he wasn’t warned. Sir Keir Starmer’s embrace of gender ideology was always unwise, and made worse by his refusal to listen to dissenting voices. He has ignored pleas from feminists in the Labour Party, refused to show support to female MPs bullied by activists, and dismissed every warning about the risks posed to women by transactivist extremists. So what does Starmer do now, as the shaky edifice of gender ideology crashes down around him?

The unintended architect of its demise is a shaven-headed double rapist with a facial tattoo and a blonde wig. The appearance of Adam Graham, aka Isla Bryson, in a Glasgow court last week exposed the absurdity of insisting that anyone who claims to be a woman has to be treated as one. Trans women are women? Always? Every single one of them? Not any more, as even the most ardent advocate of this empty slogan has had to acknowledge. It’s a damning indictment of a former Director of Public Prosecutions, who should know a thing or two about the manipulative behaviour of sexual predators, that Starmer stuck to the line for so long.

Even before the Graham case, a growing number of Labour MPs were becoming disillusioned with Starmer’s stance. Few are as brave as Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury who, in an article for UnHerd, described her experience in the Labour Party as akin to being in an abusive relationship. Starmer’s refusal to uphold the right to oppose gender extremism has persisted for so long that Labour MPs concerned about the erosion of women’s sex-based rights have to meet in secret. The Sunday Times reported yesterday that they are among a cross-party group who receive briefings from concerned groups, such as Fair Play for Women. The report added that the group’s braver members wear dinosaur badges, a reference to a remark by the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, that compared gender critical feminists to dinosaurs who want to “hoard rights”.

For feminists, Lammy is a prime example of a Labour frontbencher who speaks confidently on the subject of humans changing sex — an impossibility, as rational people know — without seeming to know much about it. Starmer once chided Duffield for suggesting that only women have a cervix, while Lammy admitted that trans women don’t have ovaries but appeared to suggest they could acquire a cervix by taking hormones and having unspecified “procedures”.

This is pretty much what we had come to expect from Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet until the Graham case blew up the core tenets of trans ideology. The Labour Women’s Declaration estimates that at least 12 of the 31 MPs on the shadow frontbench are broadly gender-critical, but it’s also stuffed with shadow ministers who, until about five minutes ago, were wedded to the mantra that trans women are women. Now the party line is changing in the wake of events in Scotland last week.

Even Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, who made a point of saying that all women, including trans women, are welcome in the party during a Labour Women’s Network dinner last year, has discovered a strand of trans-inclusive thinking she doesn’t like. “That person should not have been put into a women’s prison,” she said through gritted teeth, unable to bring herself to utter Graham’s name — or names. Elsewhere, while the party’s chair, and shadow women and equalities secretary, Anneliese Dodds, was last year unable to give a straight answer to the question “what is a woman?”, last week she was talking about the 2010 Equality Act setting out “protections for biological women” on the basis of sex. Speaking on Any Questions, she added that “every opinion poll” shows that’s what the public wants too.

Until very recently, that kind of public opinion would have been dismissed as disgustingly transphobic. Now, though, Labour’s leading figures are waking up to the fact that the public is less enamoured of extreme trans ideology than they imagined. Ordinary people don’t think male sex offenders should be placed in women’s prisons, and they might turn out to be unimpressed by the prospect of losing separate men’s and women’s toilets to appease a tiny number of trans women (48,000 in the whole of England and Wales). But if they want to hear what Starmer has to say on all these matters, they might be in for a long wait.

He might think that silence is the best option, but he looks weak and unprincipled. It’s not as if any of this is going to go away either, not least because another transgender prisoner — actually a man, and an extremely violent one at that — has been cleared to move to a women’s prison in Scotland. Andrew Burns, who now calls himself Tiffany Scott, has attacked officers and a nurse in his male-only prison, and is believed to be one of the most dangerous inmates of the Scottish prison estate. Why wouldn’t voters look at his mooted transfer and blame all those MPs and MSPs who kept repeating that trans women are women?

Conservative ministers, whether from principle, self-interest or a combination of the two, are running rings around Labour when it comes to protecting women. Starmer has yet to say what he means by promising to “modernise” the 2004 Gender Recognition Act, which already allows transgender people to acquire a new birth certificate wrongly stating they were born in their “acquired” sex. He failed to intervene 10 days ago when Duffield and a Conservative MP, Miriam Cates, were shouted down by two Labour MPs as they spoke in support of the UK government blocking Holyrood’s Gender Recognition Reform bill. Even after Duffield wrote about the experience, all Starmer did was repeat earlier calls for “respect and tolerance” in “all those debates”.

I don’t know how he has the nerve. Feminists in the party have been trying to engage him in debate for years. He doesn’t answer even the most polite letters from members, while leading women’s organisations — the Labour Women’s Declaration, FiLiA and the LGB Alliance — are banned from having stalls at the party conference. The hold transactivists have on the party is truly astonishing, with one frontbencher after another intoning that transgender people are the most vulnerable and oppressed minority in society. But they’re not — they have the same rights and legal protections as everyone else, while murders of trans people are rare in the UK. That’s a good thing, but it shouldn’t obscure the extent of violence against women, who are murdered at a rate of between two and three a week.

Some women in the party are optimistic, pointing to a change in tone and substance in the last few days. I’m not convinced. Since I first wrote about Starmer’s women problem two years ago, he has allowed things to get a great deal worse — just ask Rosie Duffield, or the other gender-critical Labour MPs and peers who feel they need to meet in secret, knowing that the leadership won’t defend them against a backlash from both transactivists and their own colleagues.

The problem isn’t that the party has equivocated on the conflict between women’s rights and the demands of transactivists. It’s that Labour has come down wholeheartedly on the wrong side. I’ve spent the last three years listening to frontbenchers, and Starmer himself, spout complete nonsense about biology. I’ve heard Labour MPs yell “transphobia” at women they disagree with. I’ve heard Labour councillors describe their fear of admitting that they don’t believe in gender ideology. I’ve heard grotesque smears and calls for feminists to be thrown out of the party.

The painful truth is that Labour, under Starmer’s leadership, has become a hotbed of misogyny. A current of nastiness has existed in the party since 2015; and while he has addressed one manifestation, antisemitism, he has allowed another to flourish. If women like me, lifelong Labour supporters, are to trust the party again, it will take more than a change of tone. What we need is a proper, serious apology — and an assurance that woman-hating will no longer be tolerated in a party that used to stand for equality and women’s rights.

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.