September 24, 2021 - 7:15am

Labour should be the party for women. In 1975, a Labour government introduced the Sex Discrimination Act and statutory maternity pay. The 2010 Equality Act began life in a Labour manifesto. But recently it hasn’t been clear that a future Labour government would define women in a way that makes sense to anyone with a basic grasp of biology, let alone advance their equality.

Party activists and prominent MPs claim that men’s exclusion from women’s changing rooms, hospital wards and sports is ‘transphobic’. Labour backbencher Rosie Duffield’s support for women’s sex-based rights provoked threats. The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, remained silent.

Until now. This week, Starmer’s spokesman announced that Labour will ‘support the implementation of the Equality Act, including the single-sex exemption which allows the provision of women-only spaces’. Upholding the Equality Act was a 2019 manifesto pledge, and considering that the current leader of the party has abandoned the majority of the other pledges, this seems to be quite a significant commitment.

Starmer clearly hopes this announcement will keep those on both sides of this debate quiet. His spokesman later clarified that Labour would only support single sex provisions for women ‘in specific circumstances.’ But voters will want to know what these are. Starmer’s 11,500 word vision for Labour’s future, released this week, offers no additional clarification. He mentions women just four times: once as the victims of poverty, and three times as victims of harassment and domestic violence. Hopefully this means he understands the need for single-sex public toilets, changing rooms and refuges, but it would be good if he said so.

Before ridiculing the Conservatives’ ‘bizarre obsession with what happens on university campuses’ — a dig at the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill which aims to end no-platforming — Starmer should get his own house in order. Two years ago, a public meeting organised by Woman’s Place UK (a group led by socialists and trade unionists which campaigns for women’s sex-based rights) was subjected to violent protests by activists at Labour’s 2019 conference. This year, Rosie Duffield has decided not to attend the Labour conference because of fears for her security.

Left-wing men are fond of saying that this ‘issue’ (the safety and legal standing of 51% of the population) is of minor concern to the electorate. But Labour is behind in the polls, and the Liberal Democrats and the SNP — parties that have already committed to shredding women’s rights for a slap on the back from Stonewall — have fewer women supporters than men.

Voters know that sex matters, and that saying so is not bigotry. 68% of Britons believe that discriminating against a person on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity should be illegal where access to employment, education, housing or social services is concerned. But less than a quarter believe that transgender athletes should compete based on the gender they identify with, rather than with others of their natal sex.

Ignoring sex doesn’t make sex-based discrimination and harassment go away, it just prevents you from dealing with it. Keir Starmer should reclaim Labour’s history of standing up for women’s rights. Otherwise the spectre of Jo Swinson — who was unable to define ‘woman’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today show , and shortly afterwards lost her seat and her leadership of the Liberal Democrats — may return to haunt him.

Selina Todd is Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. Her website is 

Selina Todd is Professor of Modern History at Oxford University. She writes about working-class life, women’s lives and feminism. Her latest book is Snakes and Ladders: the Great British Social Mobility Myth, published in 2021 by Chatto.