Under Starmer, Labour Has Let the Right Control the Debate on Trans Rights

It’s sometimes hard to remember that five years ago, both Labour and Conservatives were in general agreement about the need to expand rights for trans people. But since then, both parties have drifted to the right on LGBTQ politics.

A protester holds a placard stating “Trans rights are human rights” during a demonstration outside Downing Street, London, United Kingdom on January 21, 2023. (Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

In his thought-provoking essay “What Is Socialism?” (1946), socialist and literary icon George Orwell defines the archetypal socialist as one that cannot be “without liberty, without equality, and without internationalism.” In practice, Orwell’s inclusiveness had limits. His views on gender and sexuality matched those of a traditional conservative rather than a socialist radical. In his novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) he describes an effeminate male character as having tripped “nancifully in” to the room, inspiring the protagonist to wish that he would just as easily “float out again.”

Orwell can perhaps be forgiven for not aligning himself with the more progressive elements of the Left or the Labour Party. It was the 1930s, after all. Less forgivable has been the attitude that Labour’s current leader, Keir Starmer, has taken at the helm of the party. There he has allowed the culture war currently dominating British political debate around trans rights to rage unabated. For context, earlier this year the Conservative government put the kibosh on passing Scotland’s bill that offered a simpler process for trans people to legally change gender.

A battle then erupted, so Starmer suggested a reset on the Gender Recognition Act, defending his broadside with a supposed lack of public support for trans rights.

Prior to his statement, transphobia was already flourishing on the Labour benches. So-called gender-critical activist and Labour right-winger Rosie Duffield cited the “repercussions for women” as a justification for why the gender reform bill should not pass, sparking a raucous backlash from her peers. Her openly gay colleague Lloyd Russell-Moyle lambasted Duffield for her “transphobic” speech, yet was subsequently attacked by the liberal commentariat for being misogynistic and condescending. It’s a rift that signifies a critical juncture for LGBTQ rights and progressive politics in today’s polarizing discourse. Amidst the furor, it is easy to forget how recent of a phenomenon the anti-trans crusade on both the mainstream left and right is.

You Didn’t Know About This Five Years Ago

In a recent speech, Donald Trump made the following remark after receiving a standing ovation for a casual remark about intervening to stop “critical race theory” and “trans insanity”:

It’s amazing how strongly people feel about that. You see I’m talking about cutting taxes, people go like that [Trump mimics polite a golf clap] . . . I talk about transgender, everyone goes crazy. Who would have thought? Five years ago, you didn’t know what the hell it was.

The same could be said of the British political establishment. Last week marked five years since Labour stripped Theresa May of her majority in the 2017 general election. As Labour councilor for Haringey Council Tammy Hymas remembers: “It was then prime-minister May who championed gender self-declaration,” sharing a similar position with Jeremy Corbyn. However, Hymas observes that today this positive sense of agreement has disappeared: “Starmer appears unwilling to grant trans people legal recognition without the degrading process of seeking ‘approval’ of medical and legal professionals.”

Clearly, Starmer’s Labour has made the calculation that political capital can be won by veering right on social issues. Looking back on history it’s clear that this is not the first time that such a cynical scheme has been made within the party. Labour’s first openly lesbian MP Maureen Colquhoun faced widespread opprobrium from party colleagues because of her sexuality. She was ultimately deselected by her constituents in 1973 due to her relationship with a woman, and later told a magazine that “being a lesbian ruined my political career.”

A decade later, homophobia reared its ugly head in the Bermondsey by-election when the media, Conservatives, and right-wing members of the party took issue with gay rights activist Peter Tatchell’s decision to represent the southeast London seat. Tatchell was pilloried for his homosexuality, which was only exacerbated by then leader Neil Kinnock, who feared electoral mutiny if his party appeared unwavering in its support for LGBTQ rights. In response to Tatchell’s defeat to Liberal candidate Simon Hughes, Kinnock was quoted as saying “I’m not in favour of witch hunts, but I do not mistake bloody witches for fairies!” It was around this time that Kinnock’s leadership sparred with a radical left Greater London Council on whether to support gay activist groups through funding and public solidarity.

Historically, the tendency on the part of the right-wing factions that currently hold sway within the Labour Party to accommodate conservative positions for electoral gain has often come at the expense of marginalized communities. Admittedly, Starmer has not himself pursued an actively transphobic line, but his unwillingness to take a principled stance on these issues has made it easier for the Conservative Party to normalize the culture war.

Alexis Chilvers, founder and cochair of the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights, said that the party’s “current position is actively contributing to the deterioration of trust between itself and the LGBTQ community.” With the country gearing up for what’s likely to be a general election next year, Chilvers voiced concern that “for trans people there is a significant fear that the next 5 years will be terrible for us, no matter who wins the next election.”

It’s as if the leadership fears being raked over the coals by a so-called anti-woke “Red Wall,” a demographic Starmer’s bent on winning over. Desperate to avoid taking any position that could invite comparisons between himself and Corbyn, even if these are positions shared by a former Conservative prime minister, Starmer has opted to straddle the fence.

A recent poll indicated that Britain is sinking to the bottom of the list on trans equality when compared to other countries, while the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ lobby group founded in 1980, has declared a “state of emergency” for LGBTQ people in the United States. Both of these events should force Labour to recognize that its unwillingness to lead on these issues will have real consequences.