Keir Starmer said we need to have a 'much better debate' about transphobia. (Getty)
Labour leader Keir Starmer has finally broken his silence on transphobia amid a row involving his MP, Rosie Duffield.
Since the beginning of August, when she first tweeted that “only women have a cervix” and labelled criticism from the LGBT+ community (for excluding trans men and non-binary people) a “tedious Communist pile-on”, Duffield has fallen down a rabbit hole of anti-trans commentary, most recently claiming that trans acceptance is “erasing” LGB people.
Two women have since quit Duffield’s team, saying that her opinions and comments about trans people are “overtly transphobic” and “detrimental to the welfare of the trans community“. A lesbian who quit in August told Duffield that continuing to work for her was “untenable” as Duffield continued to like and share anti-trans content online.
Labour activists have been calling for Duffield to have the whip withdrawn for 10 days, ever since she liked a tweet from an anti-trans campaigner branding the Law Society’s guidance on transition in professional settings as “celebrating cross dressers in the office”. And LGBT+ Labour, which has campaigned for equality since 1975, said that the situation has “rapidly escalated” and called for the Labour Party to take “swift action”.
Finally, on Thursday (October 15), the GMB trade union’s branch for MP’s staff members asked Labour to launch an investigation as it condemned Duffield for “publicly outing” one of her ex-staffers on Twitter. The Canterbury MP had “abused her position as an MP” and “breached the parliamentary behaviour code in multiple ways”, the union said.
In all of this, almost total silence from Labour’s leadership.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner has been the only senior Labour politician to publicly comment on the row engulfing Duffield, saying on October 6 that Duffield should “reflect” on her comments.
But instead the MP escalated tensions in an interview with The Times, condemning the criticism of her views on trans issues as “base, pure misogyny”, while insisting she “isn’t anti-trans”.
She likened the backlash to her “cervix” comments – which she previously apologised for – to a “witch hunt”. Duffield also suggested that Labour leader Keir Starmer “doesn’t want to shine too much light” on what she perceives as a threat to women’s rights, adding: “All people need to do to attack me at the moment is be male and misogynist and angry.”
Indeed the silence from Labour leader Keir Starmer on trans rights has not gone unnoticed – far from it. What began earlier this summer as a trickle of trans Labour members pleading with Starmer to stand up for their rights has, in the wake of the Duffield row, led to activists warning that Labour will lose LGBT+ votes if it doesn’t take a stand.
At long last, Starmer has addressed the pressing, urgent issue of transphobia in an interview with BBC South East on Thursday (October 15).
“We’ve got Rosie Duffield, who recently said she’d received death threats after being accused of being transphobic. She says women’s voices are being silenced and has accused the party of being afraid of raising the issue. Are you afraid of taking a stand on this?” Starmer was asked.
The Labour leader’s response was limp. “No, I think we’ve got to improve the situation here. The Gender Recognition Act is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on a Covid-19 "circuit breaker", winning back votes in the South East and dealing with transphobia. pic.twitter.com/Sxs0CqUoUp
— BBC South East (@bbcsoutheast) October 15, 2020
The Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was, indeed, a step in the right direction – in 2004, when it was enacted.
Sixteen years later and it is wildly out of date and in need of updating, something that Starmer’s Tory counterparts recently decided not to do. Starmer didn’t back trans rights in the run up to the GRA announcement, instead insisting that Labour would “scrutinise” the Tories’ plans once they’d been published.
He continued: “But what we’ve got to do is detoxify this discussion. We’ve got people having a very bitter argument.
“If we’re really going to make progress, and I think we can, we need to have a much better debate about it so that we can actually make that progress.”