August 22, 2023 - 10:00am

How did the Greens become so focused on trans rights that they’ve ended up in court? The question is at the heart of a landmark action brought by the party’s former deputy leader, Dr Shahrar Ali, which is being heard this week. In what is believed to be the first civil case of its kind, he is claiming he suffered discrimination, hostility and victimisation because of his belief in biological sex. 

Ali was sacked last year as the Greens’ spokesman on policing and domestic safety after he was accused of breaking the party’s code of conduct. He was told that his “decision to champion a highly controversial position in the trans rights debate” was incompatible with the role. His offence? Arguing that sex is immutable, an opinion shared by most human beings who have ever lived. 

He even believes — pause for gasps of horror — that a woman is an adult human female, and issued a statement to that effect when he ran for leader three years ago. That such statements can be characterised as “highly controversial” demonstrates how radically opinion within political parties — beyond just the Greens — has shifted in little more than a decade. 

Politicians now say ridiculous things with straight faces, such as denying that only women have a cervix (Sir Keir Starmer) and claiming that some women have a penis (Starmer and the Lib Dem leader, Sir Ed Davey). The Labour leader has backtracked, acknowledging that a woman is an adult female, but the Lib Dems are as heavily influenced by trans activists as ever. The party attracted widespread ridicule this week when it emerged that its annual conference will vote on a motion stating that “menstruation is not just a women’s issue”.

People can believe whatever they like, but Ali’s case highlights what he calls a “fanatical clampdown on legitimate debate”. There have always been factions and disagreements within political parties, but the hostility faced by members with gender-critical views is unprecedented. During the Labour leadership contest in 2020, most of the candidates signed a “pledge” threatening members who hold “transphobic” views with expulsion. 

Accusations of “transphobia” are now enough to damn a political career. People only have to “like” a mildly gender-critical social media post to face demands for a grovelling apology. The situation is all the more remarkable following the release of figures by the Office for National Statistics in January,  showing that fewer than 100,000 people identified as trans in the 2021 census. That is 0.2% of the population, yet the issue of trans rights is at the forefront of titanic battles in just about every political party.

Ali argues that his beliefs are protected in law following the successful outcome of Maya Forstater’s case in 2021, which established her right to express her gender-critical views. The Green Party says it will “vigorously” defend its position in court, insisting that it is proud of its support for the “trans community”. Labour and the Lib Dems will be watching with interest, not to mention anxiety, as the right to free speech in politics — something most of us thought was decided years ago — is debated in court.

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.