March 11, 2024 - 1:00pm

What role will biological sex play in the next general election? Labour is so far ahead in the opinion polls that most people don’t think it will affect the outcome. But Liz Truss’s private member’s bill seeking to ban trans-identified men from women’s spaces has highlighted a paradoxical situation for many female voters.

Labour was traditionally the party that advanced women’s rights. Not anymore. Now it’s seen, even by loyal supporters, as in thrall to authoritarian zealots who promote gender ideology. The Labour front bench is promising frankly alarming “reforms”, including making it easier to change legal gender, when the party comes to power.

Few of us on the Left want the former prime minister as an ally. Yet Truss’s proposals, which include a change in the law to make it clear that “sex” means biological sex, are welcome at a moment when language in long-established legislation is being manipulated to mean something that was never intended.

No one believed, when the Equality Act was passed in 2010, that sex referred to anything other than observable physical characteristics. But trans activists have deliberately confused sex and gender, pushing the idea that women have to give up essential protections to placate men who think they were “born in the wrong body”. And leading Labour figures have gone along with it.

We now live in a world where traditional dividing lines between the two main parties, such as levels of tax and public spending, have been blurred. Where there is a clear distinction, however, is on the question of biology. Shadow ministers, Labour MPs and an alarming number of parliamentary candidates spout gibberish about sex being “assigned” at birth.

If a prominent Labour figure proposed similar legislation to Truss, thousands of women would be cheering. And it’s a measure of how the Labour Party has let us down, remaining silent as MPs like Rosie Duffield are smeared with accusations of transphobia, that even sensible proposals are dismissed as “Right-wing”.

Truss’s bill may be inspired by opportunism, and has little chance of success when it returns to the House of Commons on Friday. But this is one of the few policy areas where the Conservatives have public opinion on their side. In 2022, a YouGov poll showed that Britons oppose proposals to make it easier to change legal gender at a rate of almost two to one (50% vs 26%).

Labour’s assumption is that voters are so fed up with failing public services that the party can afford to indulge activists’ nonsense. For now, it is probably correct. At the weekend, however, Irish politicians found out what happens when women organise to defend their rights.

The government lost two referendums which feminists argued were a veiled attack on women’s rights, using claims about “modernisation” to remove the word “mother” from the Irish constitution. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has thus become the second politician in the British Isles to discover what the public really thinks about gender ideology. Scotland’s former first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, was of course the first.

Truss may well be freelancing, seeking to retrieve her reputation, but this is Sir Keir Starmer’s weak spot. Voters say they don’t know what he stands for, but we know exactly what he thinks on this issue. And for many women on the Left, he’s firmly on the wrong side.

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.