As JK Rowling noted, Keir Starmer's snub of one of his own MPs suggests he still has a gender problem – Susan Dalgety

Despite being Kent’s only Labour MP, Rosie Duffield was not invited to Keir Starmer’s launch of the party’s election campaign in the county

Keir Starmer has a woman problem. Only days into the general election campaign, and the man who would be our next Prime Minister has already angered many women by his disdainful treatment of one of his own backbench MPs.

Rosie Duffield is the member of parliament for Canterbury. She is the only Labour MP to win one of Kent’s 18 constituencies in recent elections, holding the seat since 2017. A former classroom assistant, single parent and popular local figure locally, on paper she seems an ideal Labour representative. But on Thursday, when Starmer launched his party’s election campaign in Kent, Duffield was nowhere to be seen. She had not been invited.

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Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader who is currently under investigation over historic tax issues, was there. Naushabah Khan, a Medway councillor who hopes to take the Gillingham and Rainham constituency from the Tories on July 4, was there. But not Duffield, living proof that Labour can win seats in this most conservative of English counties.

Where's Rosie Duffield? Labour's only Kent MP was missing as Keir Starmer launched the party's campaign at Gillingham football club (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)Where's Rosie Duffield? Labour's only Kent MP was missing as Keir Starmer launched the party's campaign at Gillingham football club (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Where's Rosie Duffield? Labour's only Kent MP was missing as Keir Starmer launched the party's campaign at Gillingham football club (Picture: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Biological sex matters

No doubt campaign managers will argue that Duffield’s presence was not required as the event was not in her patch. But the truth of the matter is that her absence was down to one thing. Her stubborn adherence to material reality.

Duffield is one of the awkward squad of Labour women who argue that biological sex matters. She first dared to post her views in August 2020, when she said on Twitter that “only women have a cervix”, immediately making her an object of hate for the party’s influential LGBT+ pressure group. Since then, she has been subject to an internal investigation after accusations of transphobia and anti-semitism, for which she was completely exonerated. And Starmer has repeatedly refused to meet her, only granting her a 17-minute audience recently following his much publicised photo-op with another Kent MP, former Tory Natalie Elphicke who defected to Labour last month.

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As women’s rights campaigner and author JK Rowling said on social media on Thursday, “it’s hard not to conclude that in spite of recent attempts at back-pedalling, Keir Starmer’s view on what Rosie Duffield and women in general are allowed to say about their own bodies hasn’t changed since 2021”. In September that year, Starmer said it “was not right” to say only women have a cervix, betraying a cowardice and an ignorance of basic biology that does not augur well for a man who has ambitions to lead the country.

Sex and gender

Recently, he appears to have changed his mind, either after reading Biology for Dummies or, more likely, private polling. Last month, he admitted on ITV’s Good Morning Britain that Duffield had been “biologically” correct all along, and he agreed that there is indeed a distinction between sex and gender, adding that the Labour party has “championed women’s rights for a very long time”. But there was still no place for Duffield at her party’s campaign launch in her home county.

General elections are rarely, if ever, won on a single issue, whether it is the state of the NHS, the economy, or women’s rights. This poll will be no different. But Starmer and his campaign team cannot afford to ignore electoral reality.

Labour needs women’s support to win, as Professor Rosie Campbell of Kings College London explained in a recent report. She wrote: “At 51 per cent of the adult population, and a slightly higher proportion of eligible voters (given women’s greater longevity and the fact that men constitute 95 per cent of the prison population, mostly ineligible to vote), women’s votes are essential to secure an electoral majority.

“Men and women’s voting patterns and issue priorities are more similar than they are different. However, given the size of the populations involved, even small differences in gender vote choice can have a huge impact at the ballot box. None of the parties can afford to ignore the modern gender gap which has emerged in recent elections.”

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Legal clarity

Starmer and his team may take some heart that, in recent years, women have been more inclined to vote Labour than previous generations, but with a recent poll showing that as many as a quarter of women are still undecided, he cannot afford to ignore women if he wants the keys to Number 10. He could start by agreeing to the “election asks” of charity Sex Matters. It has called for “clarity in law and a return to policies based on the objective reality of sex, not the subjective feeling of ‘gender identity’”, pointing to a poll it commissioned last year that shows most voters are firmly in favour of single-sex spaces and services.

The charity has a list of ten demands, ranging from guaranteeing women the right to female-only spaces to protecting women’s sports. A few of their asks, such as accurate data in criminal justice and health settings, are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but with Holyrood’s elections only two years away, Scotland’s parties would do well to heed Sex Matters too. Women’s rights campaigners are, if anything, even more influential north of the Border than in the rest of the UK. Are you listening Anas Sarwar?

On Thursday night, Duffield responded to Starmer’s snub in her typical forthright manner. “Strong women can’t be broken that easily lads,” she said on social media. “And I have an army of them behind me, in front of me, beside me and holding me up.” As the general election campaign gears up, the key message for Starmer is that each one of that growing army of women has a vote. It’s up to him how they will use it.



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