During Lisa Townsend’s campaign to become Surrey’s Police and Crime Commissioner last year, the subject that most frequently came up on the doorstep wasn’t gang crime, burglaries, or car theft. It was Stonewall, and the lobby group’s influence on policing policies, such as the placement of males who identify as transwomen in women’s prisons.
So when Townsend, who has been outspoken in her not unusual opinion that “women are adult human females”, was elected into the role in May, few were surprised. A few months later, she became the first PCC to give an interview denouncing Stonewall’s influence on policing policies.
But while her constituents greeted her comments with admiration, the reception from other quarters was hostile: she has faced calls for her resignation, an inquiry by Surrey Police and Crime Panel (PCP) and a slew of anonymous threats to her life. After receiving over forty formal complaints, in October Surrey PCP finally cleared Townsend of “any breach of public conduct”.
Now, four months on, she’s set to be dragged through the process again — this time at the behest of a fellow Conservative: Crispin Blunt MP.
Blunt, who is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on LGBT+ rights, is one of a small number of politicians within the Conservative Party who fervently supports Stonewall and their stance on gender self-identification: he believes that it is discriminatory to exclude those who are male but identify as trans from women’s services and spaces. His constituency, Reigate, sits within Townsend’s jurisdiction as PCC.
Townsend sighs when I ask her about her latest battle: “I know I’ve done nothing wrong. But it’s the process itself which feels like the punishment — it’s exhausting.
“Crispin called me after I first went public with my views on Stonewall. He put his case and I listened. I thought we’d agreed to disagree and was content to move on. Then I retweeted something by JK Rowling before Christmas and he called me again.”
The post in question was neither incendiary nor ill-informed: all Rowling did was highlight the absurdity of a policy introduced by the Scottish police which allows male rapists to self-identify as women. To Rowling’s tweet she added her own words: “It’s not a ‘niche’ issue, it’s not hysterical for women to be taking to the streets about it. We will not accept this gaslighting from men who keep telling us they are women, or from those who enable them.”
Blunt clearly disagreed. “He called again and effectively told me to stop speaking out. I explained that I wasn’t prepared to do that. I reminded him that I have a duty to defend women’s right to access single-sex refuges, hospital wards and prisons — not just because it matters to me, but because it matters to many of the people I represent.
“He responded with something that sounded like a threat. He said something along the lines of: ‘well, in that case I’m sorry for what I’m about to do’. And then the call was ended.”
Townsend is used to weathering the slings and arrows of politics, but nonetheless, Blunt’s comment left her unnerved. “More than anything, I felt sad because, as a young woman, I used to work for Crispin in Parliament. We’ve known each other for a very long time. When I stood for election as PCC, he was incredibly supportive and there are definitely areas where Crispin and I have shared goals.”
A week after the ominous phone call, Townsend was informed that Blunt had submitted a complaint about her tweet to the PCP. In a lengthy formal letter, Blunt complained bitterly that his attempts to “counsel” Townsend had been rebuffed and that “she remains absolutely determined to take part in this most contentious of public debates”. Blunt argued that Townsend’s “messaging propagates dangerous myths that trans women represent a physical threat to cisgender [non transgender] women”.
Echoing criticism levied at Townsend by Pride in Surrey, he added that by expressing her opinions on the topic, “Lisa Townsend is in breach of her personal obligations under public sector equality duty” and that “tweets like these are an abuse of her position as an elected official whose duty is to oversee the police service under the law”.
Townsend, who has two law degrees, refutes the allegation that by expressing her opinion she is in breach of her legal duties. “If people disagree with me and want to stand against me that’s fine — that’s democracy. But I am tired of being told not to talk about this because it is really important. For Crispin this is clearly just a trans issue. For me, it is a women’s safety issue.
“At present, we’ve got a situation where, thanks to the lobbying of Stonewall, anyone who decides they identify as a woman must be allowed into female spaces. I cannot see anything more misogynistic than a policy that insists that the feelings of a male legally, morally, ethically trump the rights and safety of women and children.
“I absolutely support the right of trans people to live in the way that makes them feel comfortable; to dress, live and love as they want. But everybody’s needs and feelings deserve to be considered. It is wrong to prioritise one group above another. As an elected official it is my duty to speak up for those who Stonewall and their supporters too readily forget.”
What do those “forgotten” constituents make of her campaign? Well, behind her desk is a noticeboard with scores of thank you cards pinned to it; when her staff logged correspondence in the weeks following the interview, they found that 90% were supportive. “I was overwhelmed by support, and was sent cards, chocolates and even a bouquet in the colours of the suffragettes; people were so grateful that I’d used my position to amplify their concerns.”
Likewise, many within the Conservative Party have applauded Townsend. Nearby Guildford MP Angela Richardson thanked Townsend and urged Surrey Constabulary to record offences by sex rather gender identity (in this she is supported by Home Secretary Priti Patel). Townsend also has the backing of other PCCs, including chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners (APCC) Marc Jones.
Throughout the Tories more broadly, Townsend believes “the overwhelming majority of grassroots members and elected politicians recognise that women’s safety is compromised by gender self-identification”.
Yet it was the support of the heads of domestic abuse refuges and women’s organisations in Surrey, women who had previously kept quiet on the issue, that most inspired Townsend. “I read every single card I received. Some of those who wrote to me were women who had needed the support of refuges and rape crisis centres. Others were desperate parents, worried that their children were being forced to use mixed sex facilities in schools which had been advised by Stonewall. They didn’t feel able to share their views openly due to the potentially career-ending accusations of transphobia.
“So many women who’ve got in touch have told me they’re ‘politically homeless’, that they’d probably never vote Tory but were fed-up by the failure of other parties to acknowledge their concerns.”
Despite Blunt’s attempts to censure her, Townsend maintains that the Tory party is a broad church where debate is actively encouraged. As such, she says she feels “frustrated” by attempts by a minority within her own party to shut down debate, and that this is “both un-Conservative and undemocratic”.
She adds: “It just wouldn’t occur to me to complain about another person, let alone another elected conservative politician, because they’d said something with which I’d disagreed. And it’s telling that more widely, nearly all of those who’ve told me to stop talking about this, or who have complained, are men. This issue has really brought home to me just how many men feel threatened by women with opinions.”
And it’s an issue that isn’t going disappear soon — not least within a Conservative Party that could soon find itself in the throes of a leadership election. The sexual politics of transgenderism span far beyond the borders of Surrey, and Townsend is confident that future politicians will be asked for their views on sex-based rights. “It’s an issue every politician has been contacted about,” she says, “and I’m afraid anyone who says otherwise is lying.”
“At some point, whether it’s weeks, months or years, the Conservative Party will select a new leader. As a member of the Conservative Party, I will have a vote. And I can tell you now, I will be looking very closely at the candidates who put themselves forward. I will want to know what their view is on single-sex spaces and how they define ‘woman’. And I will vote accordingly.”