Lisa Nandy brands herself as Labour’s truth-speaker. Rational, grounded, fearless of factions, the only leadership candidate prepared to tackle the self-delusion and disconnection that lost four elections, she’d won many prospective votes, including mine. Until Tuesday, when Nandy signed up to a witch-hunt of thousands of (mainly female) party members, including me.
The Labour trans pledge is an astonishingly authoritarian document. It not only demands signatories “accept there is no material conflict between trans rights and women’s rights” but says anyone who disagrees is a bigot. It names Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) and the LGB Alliance as “hate groups” whose supporters are transphobic and must therefore be expelled. Even though these were set up chiefly to defend women’s single-sex spaces enshrined in Labour’s 2010 Equality Act and upheld in the party’s manifesto last year.
So calm, thoughtful, unite-the-party Lisa Nandy wants to expel supporters of the very platform on which she was just re-elected! Chuck on the pyre lifelong trade unionists such as Kiri Tunks and Ruth Serwotka, the Corbyn policy chief Lachlan Stuart, former MP Laura Pidcock and the Stonewall founder Simon Fanshawe. Sprinkle the bonfire with thousands of horrified women members who tweeted, Spartacus-style, #expelme. Shove on top John McDonnell and Andy Burnham, who have both met WPUK and, Lisa, who will be left?
I mention Nandy because although every leadership candidate except Sir Keir Starmer has signed this pledge, she has doubled down. There are no spaces at all, she said on Radio 4’s Today programme, where male-bodied people should be excluded. She likened the debate over women’s refuges to fights between Eritrean and Ethiopian boys when she worked at a Centrepoint homeless shelter: ie a woman and any male who self-identifies as a woman are materially the same and must be treated as such.
Nandy is not the first politician who, sucked into the gender vortex, loses all reason. This week the Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle confounded biologists by saying that “sex is not binary”. During the election the Lib Dem Sarah Wollaston denied that a baby’s biological sex is observed at birth; the potential Lib Dem leader Layla Moran believes women can differentiate male predators from self-identified trans women by looking into their souls.
Meanwhile in the US Democratic primaries, Elizabeth Warren, desperate to seduce Bernie Sanders’s supporters, posted her pronouns on her Twitter page, pledged that all trans women prisoners (even rapists) should be relocated to the female estate, and then declared that as US president her education secretary would first be interviewed and approved by a designated “trans child”.
How have LGBT issues, in particular gender self-ID, become such a moral test of politicians in progressive parties? Sociologists speak of how organisations can be overwhelmed by “purity spirals”. This is when a group grades its members by a single value, which has no upper limit or agreed interpretation. Those who seek power must demonstrate their purity in ever more abstruse ways: those judged impure are denounced and destroyed.
Labour and the US Democrats have several concurrent purity spirals. Members fight to demonstrate their anti-racism by denouncing perceived white supremacy or by supporting no-border immigration policies. A US gay rights purity spiral means that although married to a man, Pete Buttigieg is accused of being “not gay enough” because as a chino-wearing, church-going ex-serviceman his lifestyle apes “heteronormative” society rather than “queer culture”. No matter that he’s bravely challenging prejudices of mainstream US voters for whom he’s too damn gay. Fighting a primary now, Barack Obama would be shredded as not black enough.
The trans issue, specifically gender self-ID, is the purity spiral du jour. The Labour trans pledge transformed the leadership election from a civil, even dull contest, in which feminists felt they had a choice, into a grim, least-worst-option scenario. Every candidate has recited the catechism “trans women are women”, leaving members to assess whether they mean it literally, like Nandy, so single-sex exemptions are toast, or as an assertion of existing legal rights of trans women to be recognised as women, in most circumstances, which no one would dispute. This is the position it is hoped the sane lawyer Starmer holds.
So why are they submitting to this test? Because progressive politicians’ fear of being “on the wrong side of history” trumps all sense. Gender self-ID is constantly presented as the new gay rights. Yet gay men and lesbians only demanded to love freely. They did not materially encroach on any other group. Most trans folk, who simply wish to live without discrimination or violence, are horrified by activists who demand in their name that women surrender hard-won rights.
Drafting the Labour manifesto, Lachlan Stuart observed that LGBT activists were not “driven by a motivation to improve the quality of life for trans people”, such as better mental and physical health care, only “to erode or erase the political rights of female people”. Their alarming central goal was a total end to women’s single-sex spaces. How will voters, hitherto unaware of this arcane debate, feel about a Labour leader committed to ending historic safeguards? About a party which believes any male should be allowed to legally change sex without qualification or checks, leaving women and girls vulnerable yet unable to object? Will Labour leaders pull out of the purity spiral and heed the fears of thousands of women members? Or will they, as that nice Lisa Nandy demands, simply chuck them out?