Isabel Hardman

Labour is falling into the Tim Farron trap on sex and gender

Labour is falling into the Tim Farron trap on sex and gender
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What do you remember about Tim Farron's time as Lib Dem leader? Was it the position he created for his party on a hard Brexit? Or what he had to say about gay sex? He quit the leadership in June 2017, saying he had concluded that 'remaining faithful to Christ' was incompatible with being a political leader. It followed a general election campaign in which Farron, a committed evangelical Christian, was repeatedly asked about his views on homosexuality.

The reason the questions kept coming, as I said at the time, was that Farron refused to give a full answer to them. Did he think gay sex was a sin? 'We are all sinners,' he responded, which wasn't an answer. Did he think homosexuality itself, even if not acted upon sexually, was a sin? Similarly vague noises.

Farron had decided that the truth of what he really believed wasn't palatable to his party or the wider voting public, and so the best thing to do would be to try to obfuscate. He always coupled that obfuscation with an entirely defensible line, which was 'the measure of a Liberal is someone who protects other people's rights, no matter what your personal position is'. 

The trouble is that journalists find obfuscation even on those personal positions totally irresistible, and would not leave the matter alone. Had Farron said: 'I am sorry but the faith I have teaches that sex is between a man and a woman in marriage, but as a liberal I will do everything I can to ensure that everyone has the right and freedom to love and have sex with whoever they want', he would, of course, have attracted opprobrium. But he also would have been able to move on and talk about the things he was actually campaigning on. What he ended up with was people filling the gaps he left with what they imagined he believed about gay sex, which was often a far more extreme version of the truth.

The reason I am harking back to Tim Farron's lengthy musings on gay sex is that the Labour party is falling into a similar trap on the question of 'what is a woman?' It is now a standard part of any broadcast interview with an opposition frontbencher, and as much as shadow ministers find it irritating to be asked about genitalia in an interview ostensibly about benefits, the questions are going to keep coming precisely because so many Labourites are refusing to answer them fully. 

Yesterday, Sir Keir Starmer refused to answer questions on whether a woman can have a penis, telling LBC that: 'I don't think that discussing this issue in this way helps anyone in the long run.' Today Angela Rayner made a similar complaint, saying: 'What I'm not comfortable with and what's frustrating me is that we're having a debate on social media and commentating that is, what is a very serious issue that people have very genuine concerns about and it's all about whether or not you've got a penis or whether or not you've got a cervix.'

On one level, both are right to complain about the tone of a debate that has, in a small section and largely on social media, become incredibly toxic and unpleasant both towards trans people who want to get on with their lives and towards some women who are expressing concern about definitions of sex and gender impacting on safe single-sex spaces. But the problem is that Rayner and Starmer and their other frontbench colleagues aren't just randoms on Twitter. They're political leaders who have a responsibility to try to improve and shape debate. By refusing to engage in it at all, they leave gaps in the same way Farron did. The gaps are filled by precisely the kind of transphobia and misogyny they decry, as well as by people imagining what these politicians really think about sex and gender.

Boris Johnson was accused last week of winding up the culture war on trans rights by answering a question about it in the Commons. As it happens, most people have chosen to ignore what he actually said, which was to give a full answer and to try to calm the tone: 

'This is one of those issues that the whole House is coming to realise requires extreme sensitivity, tact, love and care. We must recognise that when people want to make a transition in their lives, they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect. We have systems in this country that allow that and have done for a long time, and we should be very proud of that, but I want to say in addition that I think, when it comes to distinguishing between a man and a woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important.'

Now, you might strongly disagree that biology is the most important thing when distinguishing between a man and a woman. You might even think that biology does not really help make distinctions in the way many claim. But that's the point: you now know what it is that the Prime Minister thinks so you can agree or disagree with him, engage on his arguments, not on what you imagine them to be.

I don't doubt that there are some in No. 10 who do think a culture war on trans rights is beneficial politically to the Conservatives, rather than wanting the extreme sensitivity and tact that Johnson urged. But answering a question with extreme tact isn't stoking a culture war. Refusing to engage at all isn't going to quell it either. Politicians have a responsibility to engage in the big issues of our time, even the sensitive ones, otherwise others will do it on their behalf, with results they don't like.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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