Row over tension between women's and trans rights divides Scottish Labour

Hundreds of Labour Party activists and supporters - including three Scottish MSPs - have signed a declaration on women's sex-based rights, just a day after a group of Scottish Labour women wrote to Richard Leonard raising concerns about how the party was supporting transgender people.

Johann Lamont is one of three Scottish Labour MSPs who has signed a declaration on women's sex-based rights.
Johann Lamont is one of three Scottish Labour MSPs who has signed a declaration on women's sex-based rights.

The declaration, which is similar to the Women's Pledge launched by SNP politicians and members last month, is in response to growing concerns that women's rights could be eroded by changes being proposed to the Gender Recognition Act, the law which allows transgender people to change their birth certificates.

The proposals would remove the requirement to have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria - the feeling that you are a different gender to your biological sex - and to have lived in your preferred gender for two years.

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Instead, transgender people could "self-declare" their gender to gain a Gender Recognition Certificate - a move many believe could be exploited by predatory men and could have a detrimental effect on women’s sex-based rights, particularly the right to single-sex facilities such as hospital wards, toilets and changing rooms and also services for survivors of domestic violence and rape.

A group of Scottish Labour women members have written to Richard Leonard raising concerns about how transgender rights are being supported by the party.
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The latest declaration, which is in the form of a petition and has already received 1300 signatures, states that the party and trades union movement "has a proud history of struggle against the exploitation of women. It has stood for the rights of women in work and public life and for the safeguarding of girls".

It asks people to sign if they agree that women and girls are subject to discrimination and oppression on the basis of their sex, that women have the right to freedom of belief, expression and assembly, that they have the right to discuss policies which affect them, without being abused, harassed or intimidated, and the right to maintain their sex-based protections, as set out in the Equality Act 2010.

It also states that women have the right to participate in single-sex sports, to ensure fairness and safety at all levels of competition, to organise themselves, as a sex, across a range of cultural, leisure, educational and political activities and it condemns "all attempts to undermine or limit the rights of women to self-organise" and calls on the Labour Party and the trades union movement "to actively support these essential freedoms".

The declaration comes a month after a fringe meeting at UK Labour conference, organised by the campaign group Women's Place UK, was picketed by trans rights protesters, who banged on the windows of the meeting room, and attempted to disrupt the event, claiming the women were spreading "hate speech about our trans and sex worker siblings". The protest was later raised on the stage at the conference, with differing views expressed by members about the intent of the meeting.

Today former Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, said the declaration had proved "necessary" to ensure women's sex-based rights were protected.

“I have fought all my life along with my sisters in the Labour and trade union movement to ensure that women’s voices are heard, that our needs and rights are addressed, to end the inequality women face and to change women’s lives," she said. "The progress made by women has come from women organising together and refusing to be silenced. That is as necessary now as it ever was.”

Her MSP colleague Elaine Smith added: “It is important to ensure that debate and different views are not silenced in the Labour Party and the wider labour movement.

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"Women and girls deserve the best we can do, investing in services, tackling violence against women and girls, challenging harassment and discrimination on the grounds of sex. Good laws require thorough scrutiny, and as a Member of the Scottish Parliament I will continue to ask questions and listen to women’s concerns.”

However, yesterday a different group of Scottish Labour women wrote an open letter to party leader Richard Leonard and new Scottish General Secretary Michael Sharpe, raising their concerns about an event due to be held in the Scottish Parliament next week on women's sex-based rights, which has been jointly organised by Labour MSP Jenny Marra - who has also signed the new declaration - and SNP MSP Joan McAlpine.

The letter, signed by 25 constituency members and LGBT Labour members, states that the "tone of the event is alarming", and that it "directly calls for the abolishment of legal protections which contravenes with EU/UK law and EU convention on human rights" - a claim the organisers have denied.

The group also raised the decision to de-select the party's Edinburgh South West election candidate Frances Hoole, for what they describe as a "poorly-worded meme put on Twitter." Hoole was dropped after she posted a photo-shopped image of herself spraying SNP MP Joanna Cherry, with a bottle of Cillit Bang, with the phrase "Bang and the Terf is gone".

The letter also criticises the speakers due to attend the event and adds: "It is a worrying trend that organisations and persons who are supposedly in favour of encouraging a non-abusive environment for women are repeatedly bringing in speakers who represent a narrow and extreme view. Scottish Labour should be opposing this trend at every possible occasion."

It also mentions a tweet by Johann Lamont, in response to a statement by feminist group Engender, which also condemned the Parliament event, and says: "While we must stress the interaction was not abusive, we find the allegation that Engender are “othering women” preposterous considering their primary function in upholding women’s rights across a range of areas.

"It is worth noting that the Director of Engender has received a huge amount of personalised abuse this week due to her positioning on this matter. We think it is vitally important that experts and professionals within women’s organisations are listened to and their motives are not questioned."

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Calling for a fair discussion and for party leadership to engage with "all opinions rather than a minority fringe" the letter adds: "There are difficult conversations to be had, and it is clear that there are heightened tensions on either side of the debate. In an era of generally toxic political debate which sees women facing abuse on all levels, the Labour Party have been at the forefront of calling for women to be able to engage in politics safely.

"However, we believe the direction that Scottish Labour is taking is at odds with this approach. The action taken towards Frances Hoole compared to Scottish MSPs who are using their position to platform one narrow view highlights an imbalance in the views on transgender women that are reaching the leadership. It appears that there is one rule for one group of women, but not for the other.

"It is our belief that trans rights are inherently in line with women’s rights. We believe in an intersectional approach to feminism, where we acknowledge both the similarities and differences between women. There are tensions between different waves of feminism within the Labour movement which need to be addressed – but in the meantime, we do not appreciate our views to be ignored. Nor do we want our views to be immediately labelled as toxic while witnessing poor behaviour from individuals who take a more critical stance.

"Furthermore, we believe that Scottish Labour setting the precedent for penalisation over the use of the term “TERF” while ignoring poor online behaviour by their elected representatives highlights a disparity in the party’s commitment to responsible and non-abusive debate."

But Paula Boulton, a spokeswoman for the team behind the declaration, said the declaration was required because all policy proposals "should be audited for their effect on women and girls - but this one [the GRA reform] hasn’t been.

"In fact, there has been very little open discussion in any of the political parties or trade unions. Few conversations have been held at branch and constituency level. Where they have, such as in Tottenham and Totnes CLPs, members have voted to support women’s sex based rights."

She added: “We are passionate Labour supporters, including MSPs, councillors, constituency and branch chairs, women’s officers and secretaries and many of us are activists working flat out for a Labour victory in the December general election to end the cruel policies of this Tory government which are causing so much pain and hardship.

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"However, this issue requires an evidence-based approach and wide discussion before any specific proposals for GRA reform are made.”

Concerns have also been raised about accusations of bigotry and hate crime directed at those trying to defend women’s sex-based rights. Ms Boulton said: ”Women have a right to respond to these proposals, and anything that affects us, without censure.

"We’d like to re-frame the conversation to ensure that women’s sex-based rights are protected and given due consideration when formulating future Labour policy, particularly with respect to any reform of the GRA or the Equality Act.”