March 28, 2023 - 10:51am

At first sight, just over 26,000 voters have delivered a gift to Labour this week. That was the tally for Humza Yousaf, easily the weakest candidate in the SNP leadership election, who had to rely on second preferences to defeat his rivals. The then-justice minister unaccountably failed to win outright in the first round despite having wooed women members by holding up a giant pink heart. 

Yousaf’s election as First Minister today should be an open goal for Labour. He supports Nicola Sturgeon’s unpopular gender reforms and one of his first actions was to announce that he intends to challenge the UK Government’s decision to veto the legislation. Pink hearts and men who claim to be women — poor old Scotland is now in the hands of a captured dinosaur.

Wait a minute, though. Who is this, just a couple of months ago, banging on about “removing the inhumanities of the process of obtaining a GRC”? (Getting a gender recognition certificate costs a fiver and doesn’t even involve having to appear before a panel, but that’s for another day.) Who whipped his MSPs to vote for the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, even though it would have passed comfortably if they abstained? 

It’s the leader of Scottish Labour, Anas Sarwar, who is now a major obstacle to Sir Keir Starmer’s attempts to quietly ditch his own reckless commitment two years ago to introduce self-ID. Sarwar was keen to push the bill into law, even though Labour amendments to prevent rapists abusing the legislation were rejected.

Earlier this year, both Labour leaders moved quickly to quell suggestions of a rift in the party, with Sarwar saying, “How Keir decides what the law looks like in other parts of the UK is absolutely a matter for the UK party.” Though the Scottish leader maintained that they agreed about the protection of single-sex spaces, Starmer is facing pressure from within his own party to change tack.

Yousaf may see challenging the UK Government’s Section 35 order as a way of increasing support for independence. But it means that self-ID is back at the heart of Scottish and Westminster politics, and that’s the last thing Starmer wants as a general election gets closer. He knows that the ‘what is a woman?’ question will be thrown at him every day during the campaign, holding him up to ridicule.

All of this is happening at a moment when the public has wised up about the tactics and aims of trans activists. Scenes of mob violence in New Zealand last weekend when a British woman, Kellie-Jay Keen, was physically assaulted and prevented from speaking about women’s rights, were a wake-up call for many people. A Home Office minister, Chris Philp, has condemned the attack. 

Starmer’s silence was predictable, but is rapidly becoming untenable. If he wants to show that he’s listened to women, he could do it by condemning such violent tactics — and the fact that he hasn’t speaks volumes. How hard is it to condemn an activist who punched a 70-year-old woman in the face? 

Last week he called for a “reset of the situation” in Scotland, sounding like the late Queen when she was trying to avoid any impression that she was interfering in Scottish politics. But politics is his job, and he needs to explain how it’s possible to “reset” a Labour party whose MSPs (18 out of 22) voted to make it even easier for men to change their legal sex as recently as December and whose Scottish leader remains unrepentant about the position.

The SNP didn’t listen to critics, lost a once-popular leader and has ended up with one who barely has a mandate. The lesson for Labour is obvious — but the party still seems to be oblivious about how blazingly angry women are.


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.

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