Gender Recognition Reform Bill row is test of leadership for Scottish Labour's Anas Sarwar – Susan Dalgety

Labour’s red queen Barbara Castle often said that in politics “guts is all”. But among today’s political class, courage appears to be an underrated attribute.

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Too many of our elected representatives lack the stomach to stand up for what they believe in, for fear of losing friends and encouraging their foes. They are in thrall to party whips, desperate to win promotion or avoid de-selection. Cocooned in the parliamentary bubble that passes for civil society, they curry favour with lobby groups who garland them with ribbons, instead of listening, really listening, to the people outside.

But among the sycophants and fearties of Holyrood and Westminster, there are a few brave souls who have the guts to stand up for what they believe is right. Many of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, are women.

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Labour’s Rosie Duffield ignored jeers from her so-called comrades – and SNP members – when she stood up in the House of Commons earlier this week to support the Scottish Secretary’s decision to block the gender reform bill.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar needs to listen to the concerns of many within his own party about the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar needs to listen to the concerns of many within his own party about the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar needs to listen to the concerns of many within his own party about the Gender Recognition Reform Bill (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Duffield is no stranger to being booed by her own side for having the courage to say that biological sex is real. She has been hounded relentlessly for her mainstream view – shared by nearly two-thirds of the population – that women’s sex-based rights are at risk from extreme gender ideology.

She has received no support from the Labour leadership, even when her personal security has been at risk. Keir Starmer remains silent as a Labour woman MP is vilified. In politics, guts is all.

Some of Carol Mochan’s political views are a tad too extreme for me. While she enthusiastically supported Jeremy Corbyn, I handed back my party membership card, but the Scottish Labour MSP for South of Scotland has shown true political courage in recent weeks. Along with her colleague, Claire Baker, she defied her party’s whip to vote against the gender reform bill.

She was forced to stand down as Labour’s mental health spokesperson in the wake of the vote, and on Thursday she was removed as her party’s member of the health committee. “Unfortunately in politics taking a principled position has its consequences. I look forward to helping my party fight against injustice and poverty in other ways,” she tweeted. In politics, guts is all.

Ash Regan, the SNP MSP for Edinburgh East, had a glittering career ahead of her. A junior minister and charismatic speaker, she was tipped for higher office. But last October, she resigned her ministerial post because her conscience would not allow her to vote for the government’s gender bill.

And she risked de-selection as her party’s candidate at the next Holyrood election when she voted against the bill at its last reading in December. In politics, guts is all.

Which takes me, regretfully, to Anas Sarwar, leader of Scottish Labour. Today, Labour women will gather in Glasgow for their annual conference. I will be lurking somewhere in the cheap seats at the back, eager to hear Sarwar justify his position on the controversial gender bill, and his lack of support for women’s sex-based rights.

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I like Anas Sarwar. I have worked closely with him and found him to be one of the warmest, most empathetic politicians – male or female – that I have encountered in my decades around politics.

I rate Anas Sarwar. I campaigned for him to be party leader in 2017 when he stood against Richard Leonard and lost. And so I was delighted – and relieved – when he finally took over the reins in 2021, confident that the party now had a leader who could rebuild it, first as a credible opposition and then as a party of government.

But today, as I survey the wreckage in the wake of the gender bill, I wonder if Anas Sarwar has the guts to be leader of Scottish Labour. He refused to engage with the internal party debate about self-ID and the clash with women’s rights, ignoring some of the party’s most senior women as they begged him to listen to their concerns.

He was silent in public, even as voters woke up to the impact of the gender reforms, preferring to leave the issue to Pam Duncan-Glancy, a junior spokesperson who made clear her unwavering support for self-ID. He stood by as women, many the backbone of the party in constituencies across Scotland, were vilified as bigots for daring to speak up for their sex-based rights, such as single-sex spaces.

And on Monday, when Alister Jack announced he had ordered the gender bill to be stopped under section 35 of the Scotland Act, Sarwar was nowhere to be seen. Scotland was in the midst of arguably its biggest constitutional crisis for a generation and the leader of Scottish Labour was absent for 48 hours.

When he did emerge on Wednesday, blinking into the controversy, he simply doubled down on the mantra, “trans rights are human rights”, criticised the section 35 order as the “wrong approach”, and called on the Equality and Humans Rights Commission (EHCR) to offer guidance.

Never mind that EHCR has provided reams of advice in the last 12 months, including a briefing for all MSPs where it pointed out that the gender bill would have “meaningful consequences” in relation to the operation of the UK-wide Equality Act. The very reason Alister Jack gave for calling in the bill. Had Sarwar not read the briefing?

Today, Sarwar needs to reach deep into his reserves of political courage and convince women, in his party and across the country, that he understands their fears. He needs to defend them against accusations of bigotry and prejudice, and he needs to face up – finally – to the political challenge he has tried to dodge for nigh on two years. In politics, guts is all.



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