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Labour can't avoid The Worst Debate On The Internet
Whichever side wins, the Labour Party loses
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It was all going so well.
The Labour Party is 20 points ahead in the polls, the Conservatives are mired in scandal and civil war, and the twin disasters of Liz Truss and the reality of Brexit have transformed perceptions of economic competence in Labour’s favour. As a result, it appears that Keir Starmer is on course for a potential landslide victory.
At least, this is what will happen if nothing crazy happens. Like, say, an unholy fusion of Scottish nationalism and the worst possible topic to discuss on the internet suddenly becoming a live political debate in Westminster.
That’s right, thanks to the Scottish Parliament and Rishi Sunak, the forever war over transgender self-ID is no longer just a culture war sideshow, or that weird thing that your most monomaniacal friend keeps posting about. Now politicians in London can’t really avoid discussing it, as it is set to be a major Westminster storyline for at least the foreseeable future.
And that’s why today I’m going to do my best to make the discourse even worse by throwing another toxic element into the mix: Internal Labour Politics1.
Why? Because I worry that Labour has a particularly badly exposed vulnerability on the issue. I’m not internet poisoned enough to think that the debate could throw the next election, but I do think the salience of the debate could at least cause some very annoying political turbulence en route to Downing Street. The trans debate has long been a trap for anyone who dares approach it, and now the Labour Party is poised to fall all the way in.
I can’t believe I’m wading in on this one either. So please make this ordeal worthwhile by subscribing to my Substack for more of This Sort Of Thing (it’s free!) - though for the love of god, I hope on topics other than this.
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The “TERF” Wars
If you’re unfamiliar with what I'm loosely calling "the trans debate", then I’m afraid that I’m going to explain as little as humanly possible because the discourse is sprawling, touches countless policy areas and is the reddest of red meat in culture war conversations. Compared to the trans discourse, the continuity in the Marvel comics universe is perfectly straightforward2.
It’s not even particularly easy to assign neutral-ish labels to describe it3 - but for the sake of ease I’ll stick with the “trans rights” side and the “gender critical” side.
Hell, some people even argue that it shouldn't be described as a "debate", because of the moral righteousness of one side or the other. Even though in a very literal sense it is, because there are two camps of people who clearly disagree on a wildly contentious public policy issue4.
In any case, if you’ve spent absolutely any time on the internet in the last decade, and particularly if you’re the sort of nerd who reads long Substack posts about politics, you will have encountered it. It’s the sort of issue where after someone mentions it, if you check back a few minutes later you’ll find a dozen notifications and a battlefield littered with severed friendships.
But to be specific, the current policy debate is around the concept of “Self-ID”. This is the idea promoted by the “trans rights” side, which wants to reform the law so that trans people don’t have to receive permission from a doctor or go through an arduous bureaucratic process to legally change their listed sex5 on official documents. It’s opposed by the “gender critical” side, who fear there could be negative downstream consequences of such a move, particularly with regards to existing legal rights that are premised on a person’s biological sex.
Anyway, my point with this post is not to take sides or weigh up the merits of the substance of the policy demands, or decide which side is right. This is because, correctly, nobody cares what I think. But because I hate myself, I want to wade in the political impact of the existence of the debate itself, on the politics of the issue more broadly, and specifically what it could mean for the ugly business of winning elections.
The Tories hold the detonator switch
What makes All This Stuff such an interesting debate, even for those of us gawking from the sidelines, is that it doesn’t map particularly neatly on to a left-right axis, or the positions of the major political parties. There are both “trans rights” supporters and “gender critical” supporters across politics, For example, Conservative MP Maria Miller has been a vocal supporter of self-ID, and Labour MP Rosie Duffield has been heavily criticised for opposing it.
But broadly speaking the politics of the issue is that most of the people who want to change from the status quo on self-ID and fall on the “trans rights” side are on the left6, and as a result, Labour is significantly more divided on the issue than the Conservatives7.
This is important because in politics when a party is divided, it creates a big opportunity for their opponents. So if the Tories can ratchet up the salience of the trans debate in the elite political discourse, or in the minds of the general public, it can sit back and watch as the Labour Party turns on itself8.
And now the Scottish Parliament has passed its self-ID law, and the British government has decided to enact its veto, it’s not hard to imagine how this might happen.
The veto has transformed the issue from something relatively abstract, and an ideological debate amongst feminists, into a live, capital-P political issue. It’s an issue that isn’t likely to go away any time soon as the decision is being challenged in court.
This means that Labour politicians and activists can look forward to further months of awkward interviews where they're asked their opinions on the issue, and what they would do if they were in government9.
And because the Tories have the levers of government at their disposal, if they choose to go full culture-war, there are plenty of opportunities to keep punching Labour’s bruise. They could have the Department of Education issue tougher guidance about self-ID in schools, or make the Department of Health publish a statement committing single-sex hospital wards10. Maybe Michael Gove as Communities Secretary could ban libraries from hosting Drag Queens to add a real American flavour to the proceedings.
Or perhaps they could just have Suella Braverman tweet about how the woke mob wants James Bond to be a gender-fluid pansexual. And so on. There’s already an almost in-exhaustive appetite for these sorts of stories – and each one will play out worse for Labour than the Tories.
We’ve seen a hint of how brutal Labour engaging on this issue could be in recent days, with Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s firey theatrics in Parliament, and Rosie Duffield criticising the leadership for not defending her from attack. If the Tories are lucky, they may even get some shadow cabinet resignations if the issue boils up. And this will be just the tip of the iceberg, from a party management perspective.
In any case, if the Tories choose to make an even bigger deal out of the debate, the specifics of how they do it don’t matter - what’s important is the mechanism: Because of the asymmetry of party divisions, the Conservative Party has it within its power to ramp up the issue whenever it likes, and can be confident that the result will make the business of politics that little bit more painful for Labour. It’s like the end of Speed – Labour is wrapped in explosives, and the Tories are holding the detonator.
Nobody cares - but they could
The obvious counterpoint to my fear is two things:
First, that this shit already happens and somehow Labour muddles through, as evidenced by Twitter every single hour, of every single day.
And secondly, that the number of people who actually care about trans stuff is a tiny slice of the population - and Twitter is very much not representative of real life.
I think both of these things are true, but with some important caveats. On the first point, though there are already culture war blow-ups, they are still mostly political background noise.
But my point is that it could be made louder. If the Tories want to keep fighting the trans culture war, using the full force of the political and media resources at their disposal, it could raise the temperature on the issue even more. I think this could likely end up as part of their next election strategy, as even though neoliberal finance guy Rishi is an unconvincing culture warrior at best, it’s perhaps the only real roll of the dice his party has left given Labour’s lead in almost every other metric.
And on the second point, I think it is true that Twitter is not real life, but it also true that Twitter is where, for better or worse11, politics actually happens. Though Twitter users are not representative of voters at large, it is where the ~5% of weirdos of who join political parties and spend their lives talking about politics hang out.
So turning up the heat on the trans debate amongst this group of people could have real world electoral consequences. It could mean the foot-soldiers who Labour need to knock on doors will instead be irrepairably falling out with each other, and increasing the general sense of acrimony in the party. Think the Duffield/Russell-Moyle disharmony playing out at every constituency Labour Party meeting and in every Labour WhatsApp group.
And of course, Twitter is where the media spend their time too. So the more the actual government wades in on trans issues, the more words will be written in mainstream publications, and more talking heads will appear on the news arguing about an issue that Labour activists and members find deeply internally divisive.
Judging the public mood
Though this debate is interesting and has specific policy consequences, I do think it is prudent to not delude ourselves into thinking that, as an issue, it will prove in any sense electorally decisive.
Even if Keir Starmer were to appear on The One Show and announce that his new pronouns are “ze/zir”, trans issues are never going to challenge the relative importance of health and education at the ballot box. But what the public cares about does change over time, and could make a difference to Labour’s prospects at the margins.
For example, look how Europe went from an obscure issue only a few cranks cared about to – briefly – the most important thing in British politics. Or how the environment is now a major issue, even though climate change is esotetic and abstract compared to the quality of your local hospital and schools. These changes were largely the result of political elites raising the salience of these topics. So I think it is plausible that if the Tories were to lean in and ratchet up the trans debate, normie voters might start paying attention too.
If this were to happen, it would compound a very difficult situation for Labour. Because unfortunately for those on the “trans rights” side of the debate, polling evidence suggests that the views of the general public are at best mixed and at worst, much closer to the “gender critical” camp12.
The most comprehensive and recent-ish data I can find on public views on this are from this mammoth YouGov survey, conducted in May last year.
What it appears to suggest is that though the British public are supportive of trans rights in the abstract, when the polling gets specific, support moves closer to the gender critical view.
For example, 55% of respondents say that people should be able to ‘identify’ socially as a different gender to the one recorded at birth – compared to just 25% who disagree.
But the margins shrink once respondents are specifically prompted on the question of whether people should be able to change what YouGov calls your “legal” gender – the one listed on official documents like passports and birth certificates. The figures narrow to 40% support and 37% opposed.
Similarly, opinion significantly shifts towards the gender-critical view when people are asked about the specific tenets of the concept of Self-ID, which are at the core of the Scottish government’s attempted change of the law.
As you can see on the above graphic, pinched from YouGov, by a margin of 50-to-26, public opinion is that it should not be made for easier for people to change their legal gender. And the public also seems firmly on the side of doctors gate-keeping changes of legal gender – with 60% agreeing a doctor should play a role, and only 17% saying they should not.
These findings are reflected by other pollsters too. Redfield & Wilton polled some of the specific proposals earlier this year with arguably a more sympathetically framed question, and found that 38% oppose, and only 28% support.
The same pattern emerges in polling about the second-order policy consequences too, such as on the questions of whether trans people should be able to use the toilets and changing rooms of their new gender. The numbers suggests that while voters are supportive in some circumstances, support falls once the pollster specifies that the imagined trans person has not undergone gender reassignment surgery.
We should, however, treat the polling data with perhaps some caution. There is a huge "don’t know” gap in nearly all of the questions. At the moment, the trans debate clearly has low salience with people who don’t mainline Twitter all day. But even if this is the case, I think it is unlikely that all of those don’t-knows would come down decisively on one side or the other if the issue was to go mainstream13.
In fact, I think there is some evidence that if it did become a ‘live’ debate in the minds of the public, it might not change the current polling divide too much. Because when YouGov polled specifically Scottish people on the proposed Self-ID reforms, who will have been subjected to much more media coverage and debate on the issue as it went through the Scottish Parliament, it ended up with 60% of people opposing the proposal – and just 20% supporting it (albeit still with a significant “Don’t know” contingent).
So what this all means is that when you look at the polling data, for better or worse depending on your perspective, public opinion has not yet caught up with the vanguard of trans rights activism14.
I want to be clear again: This issue is not going to decide the winner of the next election. From a policy perspective, whoever makes it to Downing Street will be there because of their plans for health, education and all of the usual stuff15.
But if you want Labour to form the next government, it is worth worrying about it’s vulnerability on the trans debate too.
As we can see above, public opinion puts Labour in a tricky position. If the Tories do seize the opportunity and spend the next 18 months ratcheting up the trans debate, it means that Labour figures will continue to have to go on to radio shows and TV and squirm as they are goaded to express opinions that a plurality of voters – particularly the older, more moderate voters they need to persuade to vote for them – may find confusing, or unfamiliar16.
And we only have to think back to 2017 to see just how badly a persistent, unpopular position can send an election campaign off course. We all watched as Theresa May’s expected landslide was blunted by a disastrous few weeks stumbling on the “dementia tax”.
If you’re on the “trans rights” side of the debate, you might argue that taking the less popular side can be the heroic thing to do, and a demonstration of what leadership is all about17. This can be true. But the reality is that if the trans debate does become a significant issue in the minds of the public, Labour will have to carefully weigh how out of step with the electorate to be on this issue against its other electoral priorities.
Maybe Labour will get lucky, and the Tories will demur on using the issue to go on the attack. It’s conceivable, after all, that the party may receive some blowback for weaponising the topic, either from Conservative-leaning trans rights proponents, or people who view it as unseemly to stoke the culture war.
But Labour shouldn’t be complacent. Fundamentally, existing public opinion puts Labour at a structural disadvantage on trans issues. And this means that the party may have to make some difficult trade-offs if it wants to maximise the majority at the next election.
Good grief, you made it to the end! Congratulations on making it this far. If you enjoyed reading this, or would like to read similar things again in the future, please subscribe (for free) to my Substack and follow me on Twitter.
And don’t forget to share this with your friends and followers. And if you can’t face sharing it publicly (I wouldn’t blame you), please do forward this on to at least a friend or two who you think might find it interesting.
Oh, and then maybe you should go and read my thoughts on the future of the BBC as a palate cleanser. Or you can dig deeper into the culture war mud with my takes on The Woke Stuff, and me asking questions about some supposedly gender-critical bot accounts on Twitter.
The only way this could conceivably be made any worse at this point is if events somehow result in another fucking Corden cameo.
I’m also absolutely amazed/horrified that thanks to being extremely online, just how much I know about this debate that, let’s be honest, has nothing to do with me. I know who all of the characters are, from Kathleen Stock to Grace Lavery. And if I really wanted to lose the will to live, I could probably give you a potted history of many of the major shitstorms. Essentially when bearded, nerdy men of my generation reach our 50s, instead of reading books about World War 2 battles and building Airfix spitfires, we’ll be reading histories of people squabbling on the internet, and constructing dioramas of the Tavistock Clinic and the WI Spa.
Unlike, say, abortion politics where the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” work as vaguely neutral terms (because both sides get to be “pro” something), lots of gender critical people would probably also say they are pro-“trans rights” in the absence of a more specific definition, for example.
I would drop the word “normative” into this paragraph but I am not smart enough to do so.
When this was originally published, I said “gender” here instead, but have updated for clarity. Though note that the YouGov polling I’ll cite later used “gender” and not “sex” in their questions because this debate is already not complicated enough.
With a special shoutout for Tom Harwood for the most unexpected character development since Wesley Crusher became an inter-dimensional being and floating off to explore other realities.
Annoyingly, I can’t find any polling data to back this up, other than this on Labour voters (not members) in the New Statesman. But I think everyone who has ever even fleetingly engaged in this debate would agree this is intuitively true. I mean, I would bet that right this second, even if you’re reading this months or years after it has been published, whatever else is in the news, one of the Twitter trending topics will be some sort of lefty infighting on this issue.
Yes I really am arguing that there could be occasions when the Labour Party needs outside help to fall into civil war and recriminations, as crazy as it may seem.
In a strange twist, one of the reasons it has risen to such a boiling point in the UK is because it was originally the Conservatives who proposed introducing self-ID under David Cameron’s leadership, looking for another quick-win after gay marriage proved so popular. The plans were later abandoned after some concerted opposition - but this didn’t cause much (any?) discord with the Tory party, because unlike Labour, there’s no real signs that the membership are interested in the change proposition anyway.
To my surprise, it turns out the current guidance is to segregate based on gender-identity, at least according to this one document.
Almost certainly worse.
To be tediously clear, because of how astonishingly contentious this debate is, I’m pointing these things out not because I am taking a position on what the policy should be - I’m merely describing public opinion as it was the last time YouGov asked the above questions.
Assuming there’s a secret mass of people who support your views, if only they could be persuaded to vote, is a common fallacy in politics. A fun example of this is the US, where it turns out that ‘independent’ voters, who are unregistered with the Republicans and Democrats are not all careful centrists, but are pretty much just as ideological as registered voters.
The gender critical side also appears to have the edge on the vexed question of where to house transgender prisoners. If you lump together current physical characters and sex at birth as representative of gender critical views, they win out against an amalgamation of current legal gender and gender identity by 28 to 17.
Like probably whichever local candidates will most vociferously oppose the building of any houses.
At the moment Keir Starmer is attempting to deal with it by sticking rigidly to where the public are on the issue. When (constantly) asked about the issue he now says that “biology matters” – in a nod to gender critical views – but also that he wants to “modernise” the Gender Recognition Act. How, exactly? He doesn’t say – instead kicking questions into the long grass by saying that he’s deferring to a policy consultation that is currently underway. It’s a line that isn’t going to last forever.
There are plenty of views that I have that I accept are unpopular, but I consider heroic: I’d get rid of the monarchy, I think the NHS needs more managers and bureaucrats, and I’ll be the last Remainer standing. Hell, I even still think that Britain should join the Euro. Also, I liked The Newsroom, and I loved The Matrix: Resurrections.