Liz Truss, in her role as equalities minister, has confirmed to Parliament that the Government will not amend the Gender Recognition Act 2004 to allow people to change their legal gender without the approval of doctors and officials. 'Self-ID' is not happening. There is a lot to say about this statement, and the way it has been made. Here are four thoughts, for now.
1: It was the women what won it
This decision is a significant reversal in government thinking. In 2017, when the May government announced a consultation on GRA reform, a system of self-ID was effectively the default option. Most politicians paid no attention to the detail, instead outsourcing their judgement on a complex and seemingly obscure issue to officials who were often very (too?) close to highly-effective professional advocacy groups such as Stonewall, which has led the push for self-ID.
Today’s announcement is a product of remarkable grassroots political organisation. Even though a great many politicians privately came to see the flaws and risks of the self-ID proposal, very few of them engaged with this topic publicly. The real political opposition to self-ID came from 'ordinary' women who saw the proposal as a potential threat to their legal rights and standing. Some of them came to the issue via Mumsnet <waves to FWR board>. Others attended townhall meetings of A Woman’s Place UK, a group set up by women with their roots in the trade union movement.
This grassroots movement deserves a lot of attention and study. It shows how, even when politicians aren’t doing their job properly and listening to all sides, people with determination and organisation can make themselves heard. They can also go head-to-head with the professional advocacy groups. In the consultation on GRA reform, there were around 102,000 responses. 39 per cent of them came from an online form set up by Stonewall, a professional and well-funded charity. But 18 per cent came via Fair Play for Women, a feminist group opposed to self-ID which has almost no formal resources and largely rests on the tireless work of one woman, Dr Nicola Williams. This was a fight between big organisations and small groups of women. And the women won.
2: No 10 doesn’t want a culture war on gender – but would like Labour to have one
This statement was originally due in July, and Whitehall whispers suggest Truss intended to make much more noise about it. As well as blocking self-ID, it is said, she was also going to make a potentially provocative statement about defending existing laws that allow male-born transwomen to be barred from single-sex services and spaces.
But that statement didn’t happen. No 10 intervened to kick the GRA announcement back into the summer and now, finally, it’s been made by way of a written statement in the Commons on the day the PM is announcing the latest Covid restrictions. In other words, it’s been buried.
From that you can infer that No 10 does not want a big public fight on this issue. That is based on the judgement that the vast majority of people do not think gender ID is a very important matter facing the country right now. Of course, this doesn’t mean that No 10 will never try to make this a key issue in the culture wars, and it’s certainly something they’ve looked at in their opinion research. But for now, the message is that the Tories don’t want to be seen fighting the gender wars.
That’s likely to be a sustainable position. With a few exceptions, most Tory MPs will be quite comfortable with the Truss statement, and even Tory backers of self-ID aren’t going to go to war on this issue in the midst of a pandemic.
But what about Labour? I can’t help but note that while the statement has been buried under Covid news, it does coincide with Keir Starmer’s big speech to his not-conference. That speech should trouble Tory strategists, because it confirms Starmer is serious about regaining the voters it lost in 2019 over Brexit and Corbyn. Culture is a key part of the Starmer plan. He wants to talk about family and flag, his love for his country and show he shares the values of the Red Wall: you could almost say he wants to Make Britain Great Again. Meanwhile, the Tories want to paint him as a North London human rights lawyer who leads a 'woke' party out of touch with most Brits.
Gender could yet be a big deal in this context, because Labour is seriously split on trans issues. There are some vocal Labour advocates of self-ID, who include the deputy leader Angela Rayner, and Lisa Nandy. They are supported and encouraged by vocal party pressure groups. On the other hand, there are the quieter sceptics of transgenderism, who worry about the impact on women’s rights and want to hang on to Labour’s feminist heritage. And in the middle there is Starmer, trying hard not to talk about issues that he, like No 10, sees as marginal to the voters whose attention and trust he wants. Sooner or later, Starmer will have to try to find a way to bridge his party’s divide on trans issues, and in a way that doesn’t distract from the core message he’s trying to build up. That won’t be easy.
3: Truss is rightly trying to reframe the debate
In her very measured, low-key statement, Truss effectively told Stonewall and other trans campaigners they are focussing on the wrong issues:
'We have also come to understand that gender recognition reform, though supported in the consultation undertaken by the last government, is not the top priority for transgender people. Perhaps their most important concern is the state of trans healthcare.'
That’s quite a punchy thing to say: a Tory Cabinet minister is telling LGBT groups that she knows better than they do what trans people want and need from government. Now, I think Truss is probably right: health outcomes and services for trans people are not good enough. I also think the trans campaigners could have achieved a lot more if they’d focussed more on health, and might well have found allies among some of the women who opposed them on self-ID. But I don’t know if those campaigners will see things this way. Stonewall’s leaders are probably too canny to start an all-our war with the Government, but the politics of Tory ministers vs LGBT groups could be noisy and significant.
4: This issue is far from settled
Even though the GRA won’t change, there will still be many rows to come here. Without going into too much legal detail, there is a lot of political debate and scrutiny that is overdue about the way that public- and private-sector organisations are applying equalities law with regard to sex and gender. The 2010 Equality Act is clear that 'sex' and 'gender reassignment' are two separate characteristics, neither of which can be used to discriminate against a person.
But a lot of organisations, encouraged by trans rights campaigners, have started to use 'gender' as a catch-all term, subordinating or just ignoring the importance of biological sex. The implications of that can be significant in terms of the way organisations operate. There’s also a serious political and constitutional issue. How far can public sector bodies go in deciding how to apply laws made by Parliament? The 2010 Act may be unclear and outdated; it is clearly being interpreted and applied in significantly different ways. That will generate more tensions, more arguments and more campaigning. And eventually, the politicians who make the law on sex and gender will have to look properly at how the law is operating.