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Is Labour still the party of women’s rights?

If Labour doesn’t sort out its attitude to women's rights before the next general election it will be catnip for the Tories, says Laura Marcus.

NOTE: First published on August 20, 2020.

Labour passed the Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act and Equality Act. And much legislation favourable to women. But with many Labour women saying they’re silenced and bullied over trans issues, can the party still claim to be the party of women’s rights?

Labour prides itself on having support groups for women and trying to encourage more women into politics. But does it really mean very much when women get castigated, abused and bullied when they stand up for women’s sex-based rights? Rights which are rather ironically guaranteed under the Equality Act 2010 passed during the last Labour government.

This bullying was amply demonstrated when Labour’s affiliated LGBT+ group demanded an apology from MP Rosie Duffield for saying only women had a cervix. And Duffield isn’t the only woman in Labour to incur the wrath of a Labour LGBT+ group. When Jenny Marra, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament, tweeted NHS Lanarkshire: if gender is assigned at birth, why do you offer the service of identifying the sex of the child at 20 weeks’ gestation. Scottish Labour’s LGBT+ group furiously tweeted it was appalling to see a Labour MSP share tweets which promote fear and discrimination against trans nurses, doctors and patients at NHS Lanarkshire. Hard to see how Marra stating facts about foetal scans can be interpreted as “promoting fear and discrimination” but Scottish Labour LGBT+ made an official complaint about her.

Labour member and transwoman Dr. Debbie Hayton was horrified. “Please just stop this. Denying the material reality of biological sex does not help trans people live our lives. I have met Jenny Marra and I agree with her.”

Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price tweets a lot about and is a strong advocate for women’s rights as is Tory peer Baroness Emma Nicholson. Neither faces the kind of opprobrium heaped on Labour women from some in their own party. Which led me to tweet:

I am not and never will be a Tory. However it’s very hard not to reach the conclusion tonight that Conservative women are a lot braver about standing up for women’s rights than Labour or Lib Dem women.

It got hundreds of likes and many comments:

“I’m a natural labour voter but this topic overrides any party loyalty as far as I am concerned. I’m going with whoever supports women’s rights and so far that has come from the Conservative party.”

“I’m a fourth generation Labour voter and activist. I resigned in Feb 2018 after a Wokey Blokey from Labour phone bank laughed at me when I said I couldn’t condone men on all-women shortlists. I’m now politically homeless.”

“I hate to say this a former Labour member and voter, but I have been helped in my career far more by “conservative” men (small c deliberately) than left leaning men.”

Does Labour even want women who stand up for women’s rights? What happened to Karen Ingala Smith, chief executive of a charity supporting women subjected to sexual and domestic violence and who runs a website counting dead women, suggests not. Ingala Smith resigned from Labour in 2018 when then general secretary Jennie Formby announced all-women shortlists would no longer be women only. Her application to rejoin Labour after its election defeat last year was rejected. Why?

Labour rejected me because I believe women’s sex-based rights and protections need to be maintained and extended. Labour isn’t going to get a grovelling apology and capitulation from me. Political beliefs aren’t something I will cast aside because the Labour Party has decided to pretend sex class inequality and privilege is something someone can identify out of. Women don’t identify into subjugation and the concept of gender inequality is an oxymoron, gender is the way that sex inequality is enforced and reproduced.

“I’m never going to turn my back on women and children who have been subjected to men’s violence for the Labour Party. And that is what, in effect, I was asked to do,” said Ingala Smith.

However she doesn’t think the Conservative Party is the place for women’s rights either. “Conservatism is antithetical to feminism. Conservatism is about preserving hierarchies and you cannot have hierarchies without privilege and disadvantage.”

Ingala Smith is supported by A Woman’s Place set up by women from a range of backgrounds including trade unions, academia and the NHS. It was disruption and threatened violence at a meeting held by A Woman’s Place during the Labour Party conference in Brighton in September 2019 that led to the Labour’s Women’s Declaration being set up. “We formed after these attacks on women meeting to discuss our rights. Some of those who joined the attack were Labour Party members but were never criticised nor sanctioned,” a spokeswoman for Labour Women’s Declaration Working Group said.

“We aim to provide a voice for the thousands of women and men who oppose the policy capture by stealth by the gender identity lobby of the Labour Party and trade unions. We have stayed in Labour because we believe we need a Labour government and also an effective opposition to this Tory government whose policies are so disastrous for women in particular,” she added.

The group set up a petition which nearly 5,000 supporters have signed with numbers rising daily. “A significant early victory was the firm commitment in the 2019 Labour manifesto for sex-based rights enforced in service provision.

“We are cautiously optimistic because so many Labour Party members and politicians are waking up to the bullying and intimidation of the gender identity lobby under the ‘no debate’ blanket. Labour peer Lord Philip Hunt is working alongside peers from across all parties supporting women’s right to speak about sex-based rights,” said the spokeswoman.

“Labour is failing women,” a member of London Labour told us. She requested anonymity as a condition of speaking to us. “Opening up women’s shortlists for men identifying as women was the trigger point for me. These shortlists along with training for women who want to be MPs or councillors were set up to help women overcome disadvantages. Every transwoman who takes one of these places takes it from a biological woman. We aren’t represented enough that we can afford to lose these places to make way for transwomen who don’t have our experiences, therefore cannot represent us.

“And it’s very anti politics to say certain issues cannot be discussed. What other issue do we say this about? Lots of issues are uncomfortable to debate such as immigration and antisemitism. But we still do.”

In October 2014 front bench Labour MP Harriet Harman went into the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions wearing a teeshirt stating: “This is what a feminist looks like”. The aim was to shame then Conservative leader David Cameron who’d refused to wear one for a campaign run by Elle magazine. But would Harman ever wear the teeshirt: Woman = Adult Human Female? Will any Labour MP ever dare make that statement as two contenders for leadership of the Green Party have?

Quite a big step for The Green Party as it once referred to women as non-men!

The problem with Labour’s attitude to women’s rights is much the same as its attitude under Jeremy Corbyn towards antisemitism. We’re the good guys! We can’t possibly be racist or sexist. But if Labour doesn’t sort this out before the next general election it will be catnip for the Tories. The culture of any organisation comes from the top. Corbyn’s leadership was tainted with antisemitism because it never really bothered him. Does Keir Starmer with his hands-off approach to this issue want his leadership remembered as one that tolerated misogyny?

The Labour Party was approached for a comment.

Photo credit: Official portrait of Keir Starmer

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Laura Marcus

Laura Marcus is a freelance journalist and broadcaster.

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  1. Valid points about a party struggling to please everyone… Except women. If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard a Labour woman say that her membership is hanging by a thread, I could retire to Lesbos!

    1. Thank you Kate. I am hearing that a lot too right now. Part of the reason I wrote the piece is to warn Labour. Listen to women. Or remain in opposition. We are 51% of the population.

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