What are MPs thinking? It’s easy to assume, in the age of Twitter, that we know more about the positions our politicians take than ever before: quite a few of them, after all, spend rather too much time online telling us what they think about stuff. That has changed political journalism, but not always to the improvement of public understanding of politics. Journalism-by-Twitter, after all, runs the risk of missing the thoughts and opinions that MPs don’t put online.
One of the issues that most MPs don’t tweet about is trangenderism and the laws and rules around gender. Indeed, that’s one of the reasons I write so much about those things here. The failure of MPs to do their job and discuss gender issues properly has left a vacuum that leaves a lot of people (on all sides) feeling a bit lost and prone to stridency, fear and anger.
If you want evidence of how dangerous this vacuum of leadership, this absence of grown-up evidence-based discussion can be, consider how successfully some (note: some) trans-rights campaigners have weaponised suicide and self-harm, based on some very bad statistics.
In a proper conversation about this policy area, the reasoned analysis of experts like Oxford’s Michael Biggs or the clinicians at the NHS’s Tavistock clinic would be properly read, and policymakers would debate and investigate transgender suicide rates on the basis of facts.
Instead, lobbyists get to frame the debate with irresponsible and statistically dubious claims. Those claims are currently being used as a stick to beat journalists who try to shed light on the issue, especially Janice Turner of the Times. Having endured threats and abuse for asking for evidence-based public policy around safeguarding and children’s health, she is now being accused of causing children to kill themselves. That accusation is, of course, groundless. It’s also rather revealing: for some people in this debate, nothing is off limits when it comes to trying to silence women who say things they don’t like. It also says a lot about the debate itself: this sort of dangerous, anti-democratic and anti-evidence nonsense is happening because politicians aren’t doing their jobs properly.
But the fact that MPs aren’t really talking much about the gender issue doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking about it. They are, and they’re worried.
The best evidence yet for this comes from the pollsters at ComRes, who carry out surveys of MPs to gauge their opinions on topical issues. The latest survey had responses from 150 MPs, almost a quarter of the Commons, and included questions about transgender policy and issues - because a Government consultation on making it easier to change your legal gender closes next week, and because, well, transgender issues seem to be in the news more and most these days, for one reason or another.
The headline findings were all mostly in the Sunday Times yesterday, which reported that the Government - and especially Penny Mordaunt, the equalities minister - will have quite a serious problem with Tory MPs if they intend to give trans-rights lobbyists the 'self-ID' regime they want. Because an awful lot of those Tory MPs believe that letting people (and especially men) change their gender on their own say-so could raise some serious problems: 69 per cent of Tories in the survey oppose removing approval from a doctor from the gender recognition regime.
For a Government that lacks a Commons majority - and is, in any case, a bit distracted by Brexit - that sort of resistance makes caution advisable. More so, for a minister who dreams of leadership. If Penny Mordaunt is ever to make it to the top, she’ll need the support of her colleagues, many of whom think she’s currently pushing a policy that is stupid, dangerous or both.
The headlines from that ComRes survey were in the Sunday Times, but the results are here anyway:
28 per cent of all MPs agree that people should be able to decide their own legal gender without the approval of a doctor; 50 per cent disagree.
59 per cent said that the rise in the number of children presenting as transgender 'is a worrying development that has not been properly explained or discussed yet.'
67 per cent said 'I am concerned that rules allowing men to self-identify as women and access women-only spaces like prisons and refuges could be exploited by abusive individuals.'
MPs are worried. But why haven’t they said so? Why does that ComRes survey constitute real news, filling in quite a large blank in our understanding? What I find most striking about the survey, is what MPs thought of this statement: 'I feel I can speak freely on transgender issues without undue fear of social media attacks or being accused of transphobia.'
Only 33 per cent of MPs agreed. 54 per cent disagreed.
In other words, the majority of MPs do not feel that they can freely discuss an issue that concerns the welfare of children and the safety of vulnerable women.
That, I think, is about as profound and worrying an example of a chilling effect as I’ve encountered in a career writing about politics and policy. When MPs can’t talk about something important, something has gone very badly wrong.
That finding is shocking, but not surprising. I know lots and lots of MPs who are indeed worried about this issue - since I started writing about this stuff, I’ve grown used to MPs (of all parties and ranks) quietly getting in touch to say they agree that there are unanswered questions and serious worries here.
Why? Why don’t they talk? I’ve written elsewhere that some of it is due to the huge political clout wielded by trans-rights groups: it takes a brave politician indeed to willingly invite accusations of bigotry from, say, Stonewall - even if Stonewall’s own position is under quite serious challenge thanks to genuinely courageous people like Jonny Best. (His petition calling on Stonewall to rethink its aggressive approach towards dissent over gender has now been signed by more than 6,000 people.)
Talking of courage, I know some people who follow this stuff who are angry at the political silence, raging that politicians are cowards who won’t speak up for women and their rights. I understand that anger, and at times I share it. But ultimately, it’s my job to explain things, not just rage about them. So I should point out that politicians are, in most ways, the same as the rest of us: complicated. They have all sorts of motives and rarely do things (or don’t do them) for a single reason.
And based on my various conversations, and wider experience of the group, I suggest all sorts of reasons for political silence here.
Cynical calculation: this isn’t an immediate priority and someone else might speak up, so why stick your neck out now? Tactical calculation: they’ll speak out, but not yet, because this isn’t the right moment. Sexism: a few male politicians can see the problems here, but regard this as an issue for a few over-excited women. (As an aside, maybe one day, if the Government does indeed retreat over this issue, I’ll write about the power of politicians’ wives: I know a number of male MPs who would vote against self-ID because their other half has forcibly explained the problems to them.) And here’s another reason: fear. Some politicians are scared too. Of course, it’s easy for angry voters to regard that as a bit pathetic: MPs are all volunteers, they asked for this job, so it’s a bit rich for them to complain when people call them names online, right? Maybe, but there can be more to it than that. Sometimes, that abuse is about a lot more than name-calling.
Sometimes MPs are left in real fear of the people who don’t like what they say or do. Quite a few, on police advice, have varying degrees of security at home and in their offices. Threats and stalking are not wholly unusual. Most MPs are very conscious of the fact that one of their colleagues, Jo Cox, was murdered in 2016; older members remember attacks on Stephen Timms and before that, Nigel Jones.
This drift towards fear and rage in politics is about a lot more than the trans issue, but the trans issue still encapsulates it quite well: an angry, sometimes toxic political conversation is leaving politicians fearful.
That’s bad enough, but a detail in that ComRes poll makes it worse.
ComRes records the sex of the MPs in its survey. Among male MPs, 35 per cent said they believe they can speak freely about transgender issues, while 51 per cent said they cannot. Just 28 per cent of female MPs said they can speak freely. 63 per cent of women in Parliament said they cannot openly discuss matters of law and policy 'without undue fear'.
The horrible, unbalanced and dysfunctional trans debate leaves some women feeling frightened, fearful about the loss of rights they’d once thought secure, and sometimes fearful for their own standing and security. Some are scared of losing the ability to speak and be heard. And that fear is felt even in Parliament.