Domestic abuse is about control and power and silencing someone. It can take many forms. A text. A glance. A threat disguised as a promise. The idea is to manipulate you; to paralyse you.
I have lived through an abusive relationship and have spoken about it in Parliament. I was reminded of making that speech earlier this week — the daily trauma that inspired it, how hard it was to make and, afterwards, the overwhelming support of my colleagues. That was the Labour Party I joined.
On Tuesday, when two of those colleagues traded that sympathy for aggression, shouting down women in the Chamber, it felt like a very different Labour Party. I was defending the need to protect vulnerable women in single-sex spaces, and had just criticised Scotland’s Gender Reform Bill, when Ben Bradshaw yelled his disapproval at me. Sitting nearby, Lloyd Russell-Moyle went puce — perhaps less surprising — and started to heckle every woman who spoke of their similar concerns. Later, when Miriam Cates, a Conservative MP and friend, spoke of her concerns around safeguarding, he accused her of being a bigot before crossing over to the Tory side of the Chamber to sit on the side benches, very close to her, staring as if to intimidate her.
“I recognise that I failed to control [my] passion”, was how he later “apologised”. In other words, he had done nothing wrong. It wasn’t his fault; it was ours for daring to disagree with him. “Look what you made me do,” as my ex-partner would say when I had caused him to explode — perhaps by doing or wearing something he didn’t entirely like or voicing an opinion he didn’t want to hear.
After Tuesday’s outburst, came the silence. Not from Russell-Moyle, but from Keir Starmer’s office. It’s a cycle I’ve come to know well. First, speak up in defence of women’s sex-based rights. And then, face the consequences. Alone.
The only message I’ve had from the Party since the debate was from the Deputy Whips’ office yesterday — I was chastised for not attending a routine Statutory Instruments Committee sitting because… I was busy being shouted down by two Labour MPs and completely forgot. To be fair, Emily Thornberry, shadow Attorney General, did come out and say that the debate wasn’t “Labour’s finest hour”, before clarifying that this was because it distracted from “the most vulnerable in society, who are trans people”. Keir, meanwhile, said nothing. It was as if I didn’t exist — but, then, perhaps the Leader’s Office wishes I didn’t.
I should have been the perfect Labour MP. I was a single mum. I was on benefits, which topped up my salary as a Teaching Assistant. I understood hardship, and what ordinary women wanted and needed from politics. The year before I was elected, I earned less than £10,000. On my first day in Westminster, I had to borrow money to pay for the train fare. I was a woman who knew what struggle meant. And I was a Member of Parliament, having turned a “True Blue” Tory seat Red for the first time in history.
So, what did the Labour Party make of my historic win? Well, it was exciting at first. My face was plastered on all the Big Screens at conference. They showed a film of my victory. When Labour’s leading men, such as Jeremy Corbyn, Len McClusky or Ian McNichol joyfully exclaimed “We won Canterbury!”, there were cheers and a standing ovation. They all used that victory in their speeches, but I rarely heard mention of my name. Not one of them had been to Canterbury to campaign. Nobody in the Party had expected me to win. The total outsider, the only red dot in a sea of blue, was only here because of the swell of Corbyn mania. Two years on, when that bubble burst with the Party’s crushing defeat and the rejection of Corbyn, my tiny majority increased ten times.
Then I liked a tweet.
It was fairly innocuous: Piers Morgan had replied “Do you mean women?” to a tweet advising “individuals with a cervix” to get screened for cancer. I think I probably knew there was a chance it would cause me some trouble, but it seemed a safe way to enter this debate publicly. That’s when the floodgates really opened. Faced with a tsunami of online vitriol, including calls for my job and even my life, I then posted a tweet of my own, asking why it was “transphobic” to say that only women have a cervix. What happened next was a blur. I received more threats. The alarm bells went off in Pink News that another Terf was in town (happy to be part of the gang!). Owen Jones issued a grovelling apology for attending my election rally (not as sorry as I am!), while seemingly every Labour university student group called on the Party to stop me being an MP (obviously not students of how politics works!).
But from the Labour Party — silence. They think the transgender debate is nothing more than a culture-war issue. A weapon used by the Tories to whip up division. It is a smokescreen that has nothing to do with women’s rights. Ordinary people don’t care about mixed-sex changing rooms. Or the prospect of men entering women’s refuges. Or the erasure of the word “cervix”. What this debate is really about, women are told, is bigotry and prejudice.
I know that is not the case.
Then I think of the flowers. After I liked that tweet and started to speak up, the flowers started to arrive: more than 350 bunches in just two days. And there were messages. Thousands of them. From women and men telling me they were grateful for somebody speaking out. From people who voted Labour, Tory, Lib Dem and Green. Every day, survivors of domestic violence still message me, telling me not to stop. Keir may dismiss this as a culture-war issue, but for these women, it is most definitely not.
And I know I’m not the only MP in the party who thinks this — I’m just the only one who feels I have nothing to lose by speaking out. After all, there’s no front-bench job offer for the only Labour MP in my county. Many of us know that self-identifying as a woman does not make a person a biological woman who shares our lived experience. But for obvious reasons, these views are not voiced outside of closed rooms or private and secret WhatsApp groups. Even there, the most senior MPs often do not post a single word; they know exactly what’s at stake and not many of them want to be me. So for now, they mostly remain silent.
For all of Corbyn’s faults — and I was an outspoken critic of all of them — his party’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby, came to every meeting of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party that she was invited to, even when she was going through chemotherapy. David Evans, her replacement, has been two or three times, yet we are the biggest group in the Party, the largest group of women in Parliament, and we all won or held onto our seats against the odds in 2019. Who knows? Perhaps we may even know a thing or two about politics or winning? (His suggestion that us ladies would do well to read the latest doorstep scripts written by staff didn’t exactly go down well.)
Is it starting to look like Labour has a women problem? It certainly is for the 7,000-strong group of women members, councillors and activists who make up Labour Women’s Declaration and had a stall at last year’s party conference refused. It is for Lesbian Labour, who were also stopped from exhibiting at last year’s conference. It is for Dr Karen Ingala-Smith, the formidable feminist campaigner who compiles a list of women killed in the UK each year which is then read out in Parliament by Jess Phillips every International Women’s Day, and who had her membership rejected after she made a few gender-critical joke tweets featuring kittens. And of course it is for me, ostracised for voicing not only my own opinions but those of thousands of others who are starting to question the Party they have dedicated so much of their lives to.
In each case, a woman who dared to voice an opinion was ignored or neglected. One of the traits of being in an abusive relationship is “stonewalling”. The abuser will go quiet for days on end. They will stew, not speak to you, turn their back on you. Trust me when I say I don’t take this lightly: but what I feel now, after six years of being cold-shouldered by the Labour Party, conjures memories of how I felt in that abusive relationship. When I come home at night, I feel low-level trauma at my political isolation.
Sitting on the front bench with Keir are MPs who defended Corbyn or remained silent when the rest of us were calling him out for antisemitism. Sitting on our front bench is an MP who was voted in as a Conservative. Not sitting on the front bench, however, is a single MP who believes that biological sex can’t be erased at the stroke of a pen. To go into a workplace, when nothing you say or experience as a politician or a woman is of any worth — what’s progressive about that?
I may not be quite as radical a feminist as my wonderful friend Julie Bindel, but what I am is a progressive, Left-wing MP who cares about ordinary women, and now wonders whether the party I represent is capable of standing up for them. I am not going to join the Conservatives, or the Lib Dems or the Greens. But this party doesn’t always feel like home. In 2019, it was hard enough trying to convince my constituents that Labour wasn’t antisemitic. In the next election, when they inevitably ask whether Labour is sexist, I’m not sure I’ll be able to do the same.