October 6, 2023 - 10:45am

Rishi Sunak has set a trap for Sir Keir Starmer. The Prime Minister’s declaration this week that “we shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be” highlights what has been happening in the Labour Party. It contains significant numbers of people, including Labour MPs, who turn on anyone daring enough to say human beings can’t change sex. 

As Labour heads for its annual conference in Liverpool, Starmer knows how the pronoun people would react if he were sufficiently brave to repeat the Prime Minister’s perfectly reasonable observation. If he remains silent, however, it will be a reminder of his cowardly failure to condemn those in the party who have bullied and harassed women with gender-critical views.

LGBT+ Labour, Labour Students and Young Labour have all called for the whip to be withdrawn from the Labour MP Rosie Duffield. Female parliamentarians who stand up for women’s rights have received rape and death threats, yet Starmer has not spoken to Duffield for two years. And he has ignored letters and emails from party members who have tried to persuade him to condemn the silencing of gender-critical views.

The hysterical response to Sunak’s observation that “a woman is a woman” shows that many people on the Left can’t hear the word “woman” without yelling “transphobia”. It is a warning to Starmer of what would happen if he were to go further than his most recent pronouncement on the subject of sex and gender. He has shifted away from his bizarre claim that one in a thousand women has a penis, to an acceptance that a woman is an “adult female”. 

Yet only last month the Labour MP for Jarrow, Kate Osborne, took to X (formerly Twitter) to announce that “some women have a penis”. Labour has a group of MPs who are fully on board with the trans agenda, and their number is growing as local parties select candidates with similar views. The Labour Women’s Declaration, a group that stands up for women’s sex-based rights, has once again been refused a stall at Conference.

 No doubt the Prime Minister’s statement was made in the knowledge that it would be popular with much of the country, where people agree with him on this if little else. But it also turns up the heat on Starmer, whose reluctance to call out what some women regard as a climate of fear within the party suggests that Labour is too locked into gender ideology to be trusted. 

The leadership has backed off from supporting self-ID, but is still proposing to make it easier for people to change their legal sex. No doubt Starmer hoped he had done enough to take the heat out of the issue as far as Labour is concerned, but the Tories’ determination to turn back the tide on gender ideology in public bodies such as the police and the NHS makes that unlikely. The announcement that transwomen may be banned from female hospital wards caused another splenetic reaction this week.

Starmer is one of the politicians who have allowed transactivists to develop an outsized sense of entitlement. But public opinion has had enough of an entire society being turned on its head to placate a handful of trans-identified males. And Starmer’s toleration of appalling behaviour is going to come back and bite him. 

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.