Last week, the UK Labour Party convened in the seaside city of Brighton for its annual conference. The gathering again showed the leadership preoccupied with long-standing controversies, with the resignation of a member of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet and continuing efforts to force out the Left of the party.
Since the last conference in fall 2019 — shortly before the general election defeat that December — the post–Jeremy Corbyn left has found itself in a totally new environment. Now dealing with a hostile leadership and Parliamentary Labour Party, socialists are being targeted for everything from anti-imperialism to their support for the Green New Deal.
But as last week’s conference showed, transphobia has become a core feature of the conflict within Labour ranks — with party top brass refusing to stand up to the abusers. Instead, trans-exclusionary radical-feminist (TERF) talking points have become central to the war on the “communist” “loony left” waged by blue-checkmark liberals and Blairite hacks.
Telling in this sense is the story of Rosie Duffield, now Labour member of parliament for Canterbury, in southeast England. Elected to this constituency in June 2017 at the height of the Corbyn leadership’s ascendancy, she won what had for a century been a thoroughly Conservative seat. Duffield owed her victory to an impressive ground game replicated across the country at that election. Without Momentum activists leafleting for her in the usually Tory constituency, her chances of success would have been doubtful at best.
While at the start of the 2017 campaign all media offered grim predictions of Labour’s likely result, this turned out to be the election where the party increased its vote share by more than in any contest since 1945 — an optimistic moment in the story of the Left’s leadership. This was also a time when queer and trans support for Corbyn was full-throated, including among the ranks of young people drawn into the party. Yet Duffield soon went from being a beneficiary of the surge in socialist electoral activism to occupying the unofficial role of TERF-in-chief in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The crisis came to a head last year, when two members of Duffield’s staff resigned — both of them women, including her only LGBT hire. They cited the MP’s “overtly transphobic” positions, which she had publicized on Twitter on a regular basis. Systematically sharing anti-trans posts and then responding to the backlash as a “tedious Communist pile-on,” the MP has painted herself as a victim, even if the evidence suggests the opposite. GMB, the union that the former staffers are members of, called for an investigation into the MP and for her to resign from her position as chair of the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party. This came after she publicly outed a staffer who chose to remain anonymous. Duffield claimed the hurt feelings were her own — announcing she was “fearful for her safety.”
In a classic case of “cry-bullying,” before last week’s conference in Brighton, Duffield told the media that she would not attend, citing safety concerns given the presence of “trans bullies.” She lobbied Starmer personally to commit Labour to supporting “women-only spaces” — that is, ones intended to exclude transgender women. Starmer’s typically noncommittal response supported this in “specific circumstances.” Despite the alleged security threats, Rosie Duffield did come to Brighton to speak at a Labour Women’s Declaration event aligned with Woman’s Place UK, a “feminist” organization created in September 2017 in order to oppose the trans rights embodied in the Gender Recognition Act.
While the mainstream press discussed the safety of Rosie Duffield MP, trans women were attacked at the conference, and transphobic leaflets were left in the bathrooms of the conference venues. On Wednesday, September 29, as Keir Starmer gave the ninety-minute keynote speech in Brighton, Duffield appeared on the podcast hosted by Graham Linehan, an Irish ex-comedian who has reinvented himself as an “anti-transgender activist.”
Transphobia and Liberal Media
For Jules Joanne Gleeson, author of Transgender Marxism, it is “remarkable quite how successful Corbynism was in drawing almost every left-wing British trans person and trans ally into the Labour Party.” This was particularly positive as mainstream party politics is generally an unwelcoming place across the board, as the Conservative Party’s platforming of the transphobic LGB Alliance (note the missing “T”) at its conference further proved.
In truth, Gleeson explained, even the previous leadership was characterized by “blowing hot and cold” on trans issues. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell held a private meeting with Women’s Place UK, whereas Corbyn and others issued statements of solidarity to victimized trans people. “This was a temporary spell like nothing I’ve seen in my life,” Gleeson added. “There were very few who were able to resist that wave. . . . Something happened with Corbyn which feels like a one-off.”
The transphobia in the Labour Party, exacerbated and accepted under Starmer, reflects a long-standing transphobia in wider British society, which clearly didn’t disappear with Corbyn’s election to the leadership in 2015. But today it has become a key tenet of the British liberal media class’s offensive against the Left. “We’re seeing a convergence,” Gleeson said, “where anti-welfarism, pro-imperialism, and transphobia are fundamental to the right wing of the liberal media establishment, from the Guardian to the Times.”
In this sense, the explicit dismissal of the Palestine motion at the Labour conference — a solidarity no longer welcome in a party seeking to drop its supposed “woke” image — can’t be separated from its tolerance of transphobia, or even its impotence on social issues like welfare. The point is to set the terms of acceptable debate and portray socialist demands as sitting outside of those terms. This is also why, at the conference, the leadership pushed through a move raising the number of MPs required to nominate any future leadership candidate to forty — four above the membership of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group caucus.
The tripartite phenomenon identified by Gleeson is manifest in the Labour right’s use of these same dividing lines to attack the Left and its younger, more radical members, many mobilized since 2015. This also feeds into the so-called “Red Wall” narrative, holding that the Labour Party’s primary focus must be on regaining voters that it lost since Brexit, supposedly concentrated in ex-industrial seats once loyal to the party.
Within this perspective, mainstream media, as well as the right of the Labour Party, have throughout the post-Corbyn era focused relentlessly on an image of the socially conservative, white working class alienated by the Left and its “wokery.” “Blue Labour” commentators like Paul Embery promote a “values-based” agenda to target older working-class voters, emphasizing traditionalist mores above a radical economic program.
This vision of the “white working class” is riddled with the kind of coded language that you would expect from the Right. It points not to social solidarity uniting different groups, but rather cultural identification with “traditional family people who work hard and pay their taxes.” This also amounts to a turn away from the “new working class,” which is generally younger, more cosmopolitan, and less rooted in traditional ideas of a nuclear family. The Starmerite party’s talk of “British values” means treating the former caricature with an absurd, patronizing reverence, and the latter with a bizarre suspicion. And trans and queer people are the collateral damage.
Labour Campaign for Trans Rights
Torr Robinson is the chair for the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights. They said that the way trans people have been treated by the party has felt “demoralizing,” with “lots of trans people concluding that the party isn’t for them.” The toxic environment has led to “perceptions of trans people as hostile,” said Robinson.
Robinson is certain that the situation has been made much worse by the leadership’s avoidance of condemning transphobia. “Most of the MPs have decided it is an area that is compromising and risky,” Robinson said. “They see you as an embarrassment. . . . They don’t particularly want us here,” they added.
Reflecting on the trans people that have left the Labour Party, Robinson is under no illusions. “They [the Labour Party] are quite happy to see us leaving as long as it doesn’t become a mainstream media story.” While “sad to see people leave,” Robinson is unsure about their own future in the party: “It’s more realistic to organize outside the party. We must become unavoidable.”
The changing climate is also making itself felt in local constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) where Labour members meet, pass motions, and run political education and organizing drives.
Amardeep Singh Dhillon is a genderqueer trade unionist who experienced transphobia in their CLP. They told me that, over a year ago, “a motion was submitted in various CLPs denouncing transphobia and denouncing Women’s Place.” When their motion finally got through the bureaucratic backlog, it was a bitter affair. “It wasn’t necessarily split between left and right. People said we had joined a war against women. The vote was rushed through,” and the pro-trans side won by one or two votes, said Amardeep.
“It was horrific. I lost friends from it,” they said. A lot of the opposition came from “older members who held transphobic views, but there was a lot of appetite for learning among older comrades.” Ironically, Duffield’s obnoxious social media interventions have led to more sympathy for trans rights: “There’s been even more solidarity shown since, especially in opposition to Rosie Duffield.”
Anecdotally, Amardeep said, “Hate crimes against queer and trans people correlate with a toxic discourse that has been facilitated by some Labour MPs . . . it’s obvious that the abuse has skyrocketed.” Starmer’s opaque stance on trans rights is seen as having clear political intentions. “The obfuscation was clearly meant to appease the TERFs and the massive transphobic majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. I’m considering my own position,” added Amardeep.
Fraser Amos is the students’ representative for Young Labour. They said that trans people are “viewed as an embarrassment.” Amos initially joined the party in 2014, when Ed Miliband attempted a shift away from Blairite neoliberalism. “I wanted to continue that shift to the left,” they said. However, even during the Corbyn period, Amos witnessed transphobia at the local CLP level. “One of the members tried to block trans women from the all-female shortlist,” they said.
While 2020 was the year that spelled the reincarnation of New Labour under Starmer, it also solidified socialist power in the party’s youth wing. In its internal elections the socialist slate won thirteen out of sixteen positions, delivering a “clear socialist mandate,” Amos said.
For Young Labour, “queer solidarity and trans liberation is fundamental . . . and often very personal,” Amos insisted. Yet under Starmer, Amos said, transphobia has been exacerbated. “Even LGBT Labour — which has been aligned with the Right — called for the whip to be withdrawn from Rosie Duffield.” For Starmer to begin to heal these wounds, the leadership “would need to be clear on withdrawing the whip for Rosie Duffield” — declaring her no longer welcome as a Labour MP.
Yet instead, it is the youth wing that is under constant threat. Jess Barnard, the chair of Young Labour, was informed the week before the conference that she had been placed under investigation for tweets where she criticized transphobia. A U-turn and an apology were soon issued to Barnard, but not before many trans members felt they were being forced out. Prominent trans activist Arthur Webber resigned, adding that “the party does not value us enough to protect us from harm.”
Socialist Campaign Group MPs such as Nadia Whittome and Zarah Sultana have been strong on trans rights. Both lamented the departures of trans members and condemned their targeting by transphobic MPs and their supporters. However, we cannot depend on a handful of parliamentarians to register the importance of solidarity with oppressed groups in the struggle for socialism.
“It is entirely understandable” that trans members have left, said Amos. “The party is not concerned, but it has a political responsibility to get its act together” on transphobia. While the working class is often portrayed in terms of socially conservative stereotypes, Amos argues, “class is not an abstraction” to working-class trans people suffering for want of health care and public services.
Until the party does get its act together, Amos insisted, Young Labour can at least become a “pole of attraction” for those who reject the current course. Sadly, it is one of few refuges for those who back an unapologetically socialist politics — in defiance of the leadership’s attempts to silence our solidarity, from trans rights to Palestine and beyond.