How do you save a party that doesn’t want to be saved? Tony Blair doesn’t know but it hasn’t stop him trying. He is now warning Labour against retreating into a safe space of identity politics and angry, hectoring progressivism. Specifically, he has in mind the transgender movement and its astonishingly swift march through the institutions, including the Labour party.
Blair cautioned: ‘You have got to distinguish between the advocacy of things that are right — gay rights, transgender rights, whatever it is — and launching yourself politically into a culture war with the right. If you go, “Transgender rights is our big thing,” and the right goes, “Immigration controls is our big thing,” you’re going to lose that. You’re not going to be advancing any of the things you want to do.’
This puts him at odds with Labour leadership candidates Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long-Bailey, both of whom have signed a pledge card put out by the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights. The 12-point manifesto includes a demand that members with ‘transphobic’ views — that is, those who do not believe that men who identify as women are in fact women — be expelled from the party. It describes gender-critical feminist organisations like Woman’s Place UK as ‘trans-exclusionist hate groups’. Keir Starmer is the only leadership contender not to sign the pledge.
Asked if he would sign it, Blair said: ‘No, I wouldn’t. There are all sorts of difficult things that have to be resolved. There’s a proper consultation going on, we should do it in that way. If you’re going out there and trying to advocate things in a finger-jabbing, sectarian way — ‘If you don’t sign up to what I’m saying, I’m going to come and disrupt your meetings and shout at you’ — you’re not going to win that battle. You’re just going to put a whole load of people off.’
As the former prime minister said elsewhere in his speech: ‘The Labour party is not an NGO, and not a pressure group. Its aim is not to trend on Twitter, or to have celebrities (temporarily) fawn over it or to glory in a bubble of adulation pricked by the sharp point of the first tough decision.’
This is what the young people refer to as ‘spilling the tea’ and what a refreshing lemon-zinger this was. The transgender movement, as distinct from individual trans people, has had its way first by institutional creep then by bullying and cajoling dissenters. Here was someone they couldn’t intimidate. When half the planet wants you in the Hague for war crimes, you’re not going to lose any sleep over some anime fan accounts on Twitter.
Here was the most socially liberal Labour prime minister saying it was okay to pause and question the sweeping (and retrograde) changes being pushed by the transgender movement. Let them try to brand him a bigot. Tony Blair, the original Centrist Daddy, the silver fox who not only repealed Section 28 but once appeared topless as Heat magazine’s Torso of the Week. Gay icon, mate. The Joan Rivers of Gaitskellite social democracy.
But they dismissed him. Deputy leadership candidate Angela Rayner responded by saying: ‘Trans rights are human rights and we have an absolute obligation as the Labour Party to lead that fight.’
A woman who went on Newsnight the night Luciana Berger left Labour and insisted the party wasn’t institutionally anti-Semitic is suddenly very concerned about how Labour treats minorities. There is a foot-stomping petulance to the phrase ‘trans rights are human rights’, as though any assertion delivered with enough intemperance can bend reality. Of course, that is the philosophic foundation of ‘self-identification’.
Gender dysphoria is a medical condition and those suffering from it should be treated with compassion. Their rights should be protected and their services provided. Government should do this by, among other measures, removing the financial cost of obtaining a gender-recognition certificate and introducing specific waiting time targets for referral to treatment.
A niche culture war does not benefit the cause of transgender rights, as Blair astutely observed. But that conflict is one initiated by the trans movement. Quietly lobbying ministers and changing policies and positions within the medical profession allowed the movement to make huge strides without the mainstream noticing. But activists being activists, it wasn’t enough for them to win — their opponents had to lose. This new-wave transgender politics — embedded in social media, censorious and censoring, sometimes threatening and sometimes violent — has produced a backlash that impedes further progress of their agenda. There is now a debate.
A debate is long overdue but it is not what many transgender activists want. After all, they insist their rights are ‘not up for debate’. At once piggybacking on previous civil rights movements and excusing themselves of the burden of making and winning an argument. This is one of the flaws of a rights-based political order: activists for any sectional cause need only convince the state (or rather its socially unrepresentative agents) of their rights, whereupon they will be enforced in law and policy without regard to democratic opinion or social consequences.
Blair and those he is trying to advise are speaking at cross purposes. He is advocating the easy, open, urban liberalism that New Labour brought to the rest of the country in 1997, while they are not liberals, but progressives who regard liberalism as weak if not reactionary. They are not in the business of persuasion but of enforcement.
Blair has been somewhat hoist with his own petard. He was the one who wanted 50 per cent of school leavers going to university and it is the universities where this ideology was born, developed, transmitted and enforced. Nothing good has come of the words ‘Bachelor of Arts’ in about half a century. Moreover, Blair himself has often embraced the ‘progressive’ label and the ideas behind it to frame his opponents as outmoded and backwards-looking. Wrongsidery is one of the shallowest approaches to history. And after years of practising it Blair finds himself on the receiving end.
Maybe he is on the wrong side of history. He represents the old Labour party, rooted in social and economic concerns and geared towards winning power to address those concerns. That party has largely receded. The last time a Labour leader other than Blair won a UK general election, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy hadn’t yet been born.
The real force in Labour politics today is not socialism or communism but progressivism: that union of the unserious and the po-faced, the interweaving of victimhood and belligerence, the triumph of attitude over ideas — a movement that howls ‘forward!’ while standing perfectly still.