It’s almost reassuring to learn that even amid the coronavirus horror, some things don’t change. Even though the country is at a standstill, the Labour party’s civil war over sex and transgender issues goes on.
Earlier this week, the Labour party – you remember, the party of fairness and kindness and compassion and equality – decided that it has no place for a woman who has worked tirelessly to protect women from abuse and to remind the world about murdered women who are so often ignored.
Let’s start with murdered women. There are quite a lot of them: 241 women were killed in England and Wales last year. Most of them are killed by men – men they know. Often this is taken as mundane, just one of those unremarkable facts of life (and death) that doesn’t make much news. Man kills woman is dog bites man, if you will.
Some people do think this is worth making noise about. You might know that every year, the Labour MP Jess Phillips reads out a roll-call of the dead, naming the women killed by men in the past year. Whether or not you share Phillips’ politics or think this issue is deserving of parliamentary time, you must concede that this simple act has both emotional power and political impact. It has helped push the often-neglected issue of domestic violence a little further up the agenda.
What you might not know is the name of the women who collects those names. She is Karen Ingala-Smith and she runs the Counting Dead Women project, which does exactly that.
When Ingala-Smith isn’t counting and naming dead women, she runs a charity that provides refuge for women who have suffered physical and sexual abuse. In that capacity, she has given evidence to parliamentary inquiries, briefed politicians and worked with major corporate sponsors on issues around the murder of women. She’s won prizes from such sources as the National Diversity Awards and is doing a PhD in sociology in her spare time.
In any normal, sane and ordered world, you would be utterly unsurprised to learn that Ingala-Smith was a Labour party member, maybe an activist and quite likely the sort of person the party would be keen to have in Parliament. Hers is, after all, an impressive CV showing deep and effective commitment to the sort of cause that Labour says it exists to promote.
But Karen Ingala-Smith is not a Labour party member. She was, for a long time, until she quit in 2018, unhappy at some of the things going on under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
More recently, she applied to rejoin the party, something quite a few people have done since Corbyn announced he was off.
And guess what the Labour party said to Karen Ingala-Smith? No. There is no place in the party for you.
Why? Why would Labour reject the membership of a woman who has devoted more than 25 years to protecting women from abuse and violence, and fighting for officials to focus on the abuse and murder of women?
Well, it might not surprise you to learn that this is about trans issues.
In a letter dated March 24th, the Governance and Legal Unit at Labour HQ informed Ingala-Smith that she was not welcome in the party:
‘The information brought to our attention is that you have engaged in conduct online that may reasonably be seen to demonstrate hostility based on gender identity.
Your application for membership of the Labour party has therefore been rejected.’
The letter does not observe any due process by telling Ingala-Smith what the evidence used against her might be, of course. So no one beyond Labour HQ knows what Ingala-Smith has done to ‘demonstrate hostility based on gender identity’, whatever that means.
For context, I should note that the shelters and hostels Ingala-Smith runs in north London operate on a female-only basis. They only admit people who are biologically female. Trans women, that is to say, people born male who identify as female, are not admitted.
‘One of the most important ways that we can contribute to creating a “safe space” for women who have experienced men’s violence… is quite simply by keeping men out. Men are far more likely to commit violence than women. Exclude men and you are very significantly reducing the prevalence of violence.
There is no credible evidence suggesting that males who identify as trans commit violence against women at lower rates than those who do not. I’m not saying that men who identify as transgender are inherently violent or that all trans identified males are violent – just that they are no less violent that other males. And they are males.’
She added that women who have been abused by men sometimes develop a trauma response to men, meaning that being in the presence of men (people with male bodies, voices, mannerisms and so on) is troubling and even harmful to them. This is why she does not admit biological men into her refuge. (The whole speech, which is long, reasoned and detailed, is here. I recommend reading it all.)
This approach is, narrowly speaking, discriminatory. It is also entirely lawful: the Equality Act 2010 permits sex-based discrimination to preserve female-only services such as refuges for victims of abuse.
I suppose this turns on motive. Why does Ingala-Smith act in this way? Why does she not allow people with male bodies into refuges for women who have been beaten and abused by people with male bodies? There are, broadly, two possible explanations.
The first is that Karen Ingala-Smith, a woman who has worked ceaselessly to protect vulnerable women, has concluded that this policy is the best way to protect the women in her refuges. The second is that Karen Ingala-Smith, a lifelong campaigner for the vulnerable, has contrived this policy out of prejudice against a minority group.
And somehow, somehow, Labour party officials in charge of membership appear to have decided to accept that the second explanation is more plausible than the first. So Labour, as it exists today, is not the party for a woman such as Karen Ingala-Smith.
Soon the party will have a new leader, who will have many significant decisions to make about Labour’s future direction. One of them should be to decide whether Labour wants to be the party of people like Karen Ingala Smith, or the party of the people who want to drive away women like her.