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Keir Starmer’s woman problem The Labour leader has done nothing to tackle trans extremists' assault on sex-based rights

Starmer talks with students after receiving their A-level results (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Starmer talks with students after receiving their A-level results (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

September 22, 2020   5 mins

Sir Keir Starmer has a problem. No, not that one — I don’t mean Labour’s terrible record on antisemitism, which he promised to confront during his first speech as leader. I’m talking about something that’s potentially just as damaging for the party, although it hasn’t received as much attention: what does the Labour leader intend to do about the rancid misogyny currently being experienced by anyone who stands up for women’s sex-based rights? His silence is deeply troubling to many women who’ve suffered abuse, threats and doxing for insisting on our legal right to single-sex spaces.

Take the past few days. The latest book by the author J.K. Rowling, who gave £1m to Labour in 2008, hadn’t even been published when the smears started to appear. Rowling, who writes crime fiction under the pen name Robert Galbraith, was accused of being an evil transphobe who had deliberately written a novel about a ‘transvestite serial killer’ to distress trans men and women. The menacing hashtag #RIPJKRowling trended on Twitter, while hundreds of fake 1* reviews were posted on Goodreads.com, the world’s largest reader recommendations website, by people who openly admitted they hadn’t read the novel.

Not a word of it was true. Troubled Blood isn’t about a “transvestite serial killer” and it doesn’t feature a single trans character. There is a minor character, a murderer who uses a variety of tricks and disguises to fool his victims, but he is only one in a long list of suspects. What none of these self-appointed literary critics mentioned, because they hadn’t read it, is that the novel’s real subject is the myriad forms of violence suffered by women. Several writers pointed this out, myself included, but it didn’t stop the vicious and completely baseless attacks on Rowling. Such tactics are unlikely to affect her sales but they could be employed against less well-known authors, damaging their prospects of being published again after they’ve been saddled with the deadly ‘transphobe’ label.

What it also didn’t do was bring out the great and the good who would normally rush to the defence of one the country’s leading authors and philanthropists. Starmer, who was doing a round of interviews prior to this week’s Labour conference, had ample opportunity to condemn the attempts to intimidate Rowling. He didn’t, any more than he’s had anything to say in support of the hundreds of gender-critical women in the party who can no longer hold a meeting without trans extremists shouting abuse, banging on the windows or setting off smoke bombs.

He even remained silent in June when a member of his own shadow Cabinet launched a nasty attack on Rowling, accusing her of using her own experience of sexual assault and domestic violence to justify discrimination against trans people. Starmer could easily have signalled that he won’t tolerate such behaviour by sacking the Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle from the front bench, as he did when the shadow minister Rebecca Long Bailey shared an article about the actor Maxine Peake that contained an antisemitic conspiracy theory. But he stayed quiet and allowed Russell-Moyle to stay in place until the following month when the MP resigned after another row, this time about a blatantly antisemitic remark.

Why wouldn’t Starmer defend Rowling? I’m afraid there’s a pattern here: lots of longstanding Labour members would welcome the opportunity to meet him and describe how miserable they’ve been made to feel for defending women’s existing rights, but as far as I know it hasn’t happened. Starmer is quite rightly tough on antisemitism but he seems unwilling to confront misogyny, despite the fact that it’s now more widespread and shameless than at any period I can remember.

Trust me, I know what I’m talking about: when it comes to woman-hating, I really did write the book. Misogynies is still in print three decades later and if I were writing it now, I would have plenty of material for new chapters. But Starmer wouldn’t even defend one of his own women MPs, remaining silent when the Canterbury MP Rosie Duffield was bullied by trans activists last month. Duffield’s ‘offence’ was to state the obvious fact that only women have a cervix, an observation that led an organisation called LGBT+ Labour to demand not just an apology but ‘reparations’. Duffield, who has spoken movingly in Parliament about her own experience of domestic abuse, received no support from her leader or (to my knowledge) other Labour MPs.

The activists’ slogan “trans women are women” (TWAW for short) is repeated like a mantra by any number of Labour politicians. Has no one stopped to think and realised how misogynist it is? Far from being ‘nice’ or inclusive, it tells women to accept that male-bodied individuals — only a small minority of trans women have had surgery — are women just like those of us who were born female. It demands that we give people with male genitals exactly the same rights, including access to women-only spaces such as refuges and hospital wards, that previous generations of women fought to achieve. It’s a form of gaslighting, painfully familiar to women who have been told not to believe the evidence of our own eyes, yet anyone who objects is accused of ‘transphobia’.

The word is used so often, and so inaccurately, that it no longer means anything. Most of the people damned as wicked transphobes, like Rowling, are absolutely clear that they believe trans men and women should have the same rights as everyone else. But what’s being demanded by trans extremists isn’t equality — it’s submission. That’s the whole point of the TWAW mantra, and it misrepresents the slightest squeak of disagreement as ‘hate speech’. Anyone who supports women’s rights and free expression should be horrified by these tactics, yet Starmer signed up to the TWAW slogan during the Labour leadership contest earlier this year. The five women candidates went even further, signing a rival set of pledges that threatened dissenting women with expulsion from the party.

One victim of all this is Karen Ingala Smith, founder of the Femicide Census and CEO of a charity that provides services for victims of male violence. Her application to rejoin the party earlier this year was refused on the ground that she had supposedly engaged in conduct online that demonstrated “hostility based on gender identity”. It would be interesting to know whether Starmer, who had an admirable track record of prosecuting crimes against women when he was Director of Public Prosecutions, seriously thinks there is no place in the party he leads for one of country’s foremost campaigners against sexual and domestic violence.

To be fair, other political parties are just as bad as Labour. The Lib Dems went into the last general election with a leader, Jo Swinson, who is reluctant to say whether or not she believes that biological sex exists. When she lost her own seat, one of the candidates to replace her was the Oxford West MP Layla Moran, who thinks that some women have beards. (She lost to Sir Ed Davey, who has tweeted that TWAW.) In Scotland, the SNP is pressing ahead with a dreadful hate crimes bill that creates a new offence of ‘stirring up hatred’ against trans people, even if you had no intention of doing so. Feminists on the left have been forced to pin our hopes on the Conservative Minister for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss, who is expected to announce this week that the government won’t press ahead with plans to deregulate self-ID.

What’s going on here is institutional capture, as one organisation after another (the BMA is the latest) bows to the demands of trans extremists. Starmer may think he has more important things to worry about, such as the impending publication of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on the party’s handling of antisemitism. But if his stance on that issue is principled, as it surely is, it’s hard to see why the same argument doesn’t apply to another group of people who’ve been singled out for vicious personal attacks and smears. Just to make a practical point for a moment, these are the very same Labour activists that the leadership relies on to knock on doors and stand for hours outside polling stations during election campaigns.

If Starmer believes he can ignore the rising anger of feminists in the party, who are sick to the back teeth of being told our concerns about single-sex spaces are ‘transphobic’, he needs to think again. Labour has a misogyny problem — and it’s not going away.

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.


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