March 23, 2023 - 2:00pm

It’s not as if we’ve been pushing at an open door. Women in the Labour Party have been trying to talk to Sir Keir Starmer for years about the need to protect women’s rights — and he hasn’t listened. Now, suddenly, he claims to have a “very, very clear position” on how to balance the rights of women and transgender people. 

Really? I suppose he has at least tempered his enthusiasm for making it easier for people to change their legal gender, which he committed to a couple of years ago. But anyone who is aware of Labour’s ‘woman problem’ might be forgiven for thinking that what Starmer has come up with is at best unclear and at worst a fudge. What, for instance, does he propose to do about one of the core demands of women’s rights campaigners, which is to protect single-sex spaces in refuges, prisons and hospital wards? 

“We have made real and significant progress when it comes to women’s rights”, Starmer now says, “and we must not roll back or retreat from any of that, and one of them is safe spaces.” See what he did there? Not ‘single-sex spaces’, which means restricted to biological women. ‘Safe spaces’ is a wishy-washy phrase, often used by protesters who claim that the mere presence of women talking about our rights makes them feel ‘unsafe’.

The unequivocal phrase ‘single-sex spaces’ is evidently a step too far for Starmer, which means he still hasn’t committed to the basic principle of allowing women to access services that don’t admit men. It isn’t clear that his new position does anything to protect organisations running refuges for victims of domestic violence, which have faced repeated demands to admit male-bodied people who ‘identify’ as women. 

Nor does it help women who currently have to share intimate spaces in prison with trans-identified males. If any establishment should be segregated by biological sex, it’s surely prisons, which house many women who are victims of male violence and terrified of being locked up with men. The Westminster Government has stopped the practice of allowing trans women to be housed in women’s prisons in England and Wales, but a number remain who were transferred before the new policy. 

It would be easier to give Starmer credit for what appears to be a shift in policy, however small, if he were willing to talk to women in his own party. Since he became leader, however, he has shown himself endlessly willing to repeat the slogans of trans activists, but a great deal less accommodating when it comes to allowing feminists a hearing. 

Labour has evidently learned one painful lesson from the debacle in Scotland, where the wildly misconceived Gender Recognition Reform Bill destroyed the credibility of the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and prompted thousands to resign their membership of the SNP. Starmer now admits that “you don’t make changes that you can’t bring the public along with, which is why in Scotland they should reset the situation”.

I assume that advice applies to the Scottish Labour Party, most of whose MSPs supported the doomed bill — and to Wales, where a Labour administration is itching to introduce self-ID. If women are going to support the party at the next general election, we need Starmer to offer unequivocal support for single-sex spaces, even if he has to do it through gritted teeth.

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.