It a source of quiet satisfaction to the average Tory that, on the female leader stakes, the Conservatives currently lead Labour 2-0. Despite the best efforts of Margaret Beckett, Angela Rayner and, erm, Diane Abbott, the party of all-women shortlists has still yet to be headed by a member of the fairer sex.
One reason for this might be that Labour aren’t entirely sure what a woman is. Asked on Women’s Hour on International Women’s Day what a woman was, Anneliese Dodds, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, struggled to define the word on everyone’s lips. What a woman is depends on the context, according to Dodds, and the 2010 Equalities Act hadn’t defined the term clearly enough.
Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, did little better. Three times she told an interviewer on Times Radio that she didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole. By contrast, her party leader used a visit to an Estonian military base to focus on Eastern Europe’s most pressing issue. “Trans women are women”, he declared. “And that is not just my view — that is actually the law”.
Though a few legal brains would say Starmer’s summary of the intersection between the 2004 Gender Recognition Act and 2010 Equalities Act is wrong, one can see where the former Director of Public Prosecutions is coming from. After all, if his genitalia won’t stop him from being able to identify as a woman, then Labour could be on their way to their first female leader, if he was so inclined.
But, unfortunately for any hypothetical Lady Kiera Starmer, his party has also been coming a cropper about genitalia. Can women have penises? Scourge of the white van man Emily Thornberry believes yes. Rising star (and LBC double-jobber) Wes Streeting thinks no. And Angela Rayner believes “it’s unacceptable” to even ask that question.
And Starmer? He hasn’t appeared to think anything – or that he just wants the subject to go away. A bit like Alan Partridge, the Leader of the Opposition does not find the interminable debate over trans rights attractive – just confusing. But with the Lia Thomas debacle and other headlines catching the public eye, this is not an issue over which Labour can be in a muddle if it wants to return to power.
Indeed, there has been talk that his equivocatory approach might be pushing Rosie Duffield, the MP for Canterbury, towards crossing the floor. When she receives death threats for standing up for the protection of female-only spaces and for – shock horror – going to lunch with a world-famous author, a former Guardian columnist, and some lesbians, then who can blame her.
Starmer also has to contend with the Tories having identified this issue an obvious weakness for Labour. The eight million monthly visitors to Mumsnet are not best pleased with the obfuscation of the Leader of the Opposition. But they have applauded the Prime Minister’s recent combativeness on the subject of the female eunuch and would have laughed at his dig at the recent Tory parliamentary dinner. Had they been invited to such an auspicious occasion, of course.
So it is unsurprising that a leader who places such importance on being guided by his focus groups has decided to shift his position somewhat. Whilst visiting Glasgow yesterday with his Scottish equivalent Anas Sarwar, Starmer told the assembled press that it is “plain common sense” that biology determines sex for most women. “You can’t argue with biology”, his tartan comrade helpfully added.
But Starmer won’t be getting any invites to J.K. Rowling’s lunches anytime soon. He made sure to tag on the end of his comments that those who struggle with their gender identity should be respected. Sarwar also suggested that transphobia is a real and important problem to tackle. So here is the Labour position: conscious of the birds and bees, but keen to help those moving between fowl and insect too.
One might think this is a typical politician’s fudge. But for all his habit of blushing like an errant schoolboy discovered with a dirty magazine, Starmer’s take on the trans debate is relatively close to that of the general public. Polling suggests voters tend to be protective of single-sex spaces and sports, but they are generally both relaxed and sympathetic when it comes to transgender people living as they wish.
So has this got Labour out of the woods? I suspect not. As the Government is currently finding over its Conversion Therapy Bill, reforming the law on these issues can be incredibly contentious. One can expect the Mumsnet crowd, ably supported by Baroness Harry Potter and her outriders, to make a great deal of fuss about it as the next election approaches.
Nevertheless, although their leader is no Tony Blair, it is refreshing to again see a Labour Party with some interest in bringing itself closer to public opinion. The confusion of Starmer, Dodds, et al over defining women and their genitalia may show Labour is still buffeted by the radicalism of its base. But Starmer’s decision to face up to biology suggests the focus is ultimately not on appeasing them, but the voters.