The consultation on the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA) launched by the Tory government in 2016 was not the starting gun for the ‘culture wars’ – but it did create a battlefield. The Tories faced a Labour opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn. They hoped making it easier for trans and non-binary people to self-identify would be a cheap way to cut across some of the hatred felt, especially among young people, for their nasty austerity party. Five years on, as we warned, the Tories admit they have no intention of improving the GRA. The battlefield, however, is still active.
Those pushing themselves to the front of the so-called debate arising from the GRA reform consultation falsely present women’s rights and the rights of trans and non-binary people as conflicting rights. They are not. All women and trans and non-binary people suffer in different and related ways because of the way capitalist society is organised and structured.
The appearance of a conflict arises from the limits of existing capitalism within which different groups are told they must fight each other for rights and resources. But taking the ownership of production and power from the ruling capitalist class and replacing it with democratic planning of society by the working class would overcome this.
There are three main reasons why the lie of conflicting rights has survived. The first is that capitalist politicians today struggle to defend their increasingly dysfunctional and unpopular system. Boris Johnson attempts to whip up support for his weak and divided party through fear and division.
Separatism plays a useful role for capitalism. Maintaining the exploitation of the working class majority and the private ownership by a tiny few of the means of production is inherently untenable. The capitalist class has, however, long established that it can use the differences between the various layers and sections within the working class to its advantage. Stoking divisions, including on the lines of race, religion, sexual orientation and gender, makes it easier to maintain capitalist rule.
The third and most important reason is that the leaders of the workers’ movement have not responded by building a united struggle for jobs, homes and services for all, linked to the fight to end oppression and capitalism. In the context of the market dominating in higher education, a ‘cottage industry’ of so-called ‘gender critical theory’ and identity politics has developed. Access to book and media deals for academics, lends to an emphasis on positions that generate airtime and Twitter followers rather than genuine debate. Unfortunately, a number of leading trade unionists have also become involved with this divisive and therefore dead-end approach. This does not help those young people looking for a way to fight capitalism see how the organised working class is the potential agent of socialist change.
The two-day, 8,000-strong strike of council workers in UNISON and the GMB in Glasgow in 2018, in contrast, provides important insight into what working class methods make possible. The dispute arose because the employer, both the Scottish National Party and Labour council administrations, had for twelve years underpaid the council workers, who were 90% women, through a scheme that was supposed to end pay inequality.
The under-payments, an expression of the double oppression faced by specially oppressed workers, arose not from those workers’ bodies, but from women’s unequal status in capitalist society in the service of the bosses’ interests. The strike inspired solidarity action by refuse workers, mainly men, and the workers won, with half a billion pounds in back pay promised. It was organising collective action as workers that provided the power to stand up against the oppression they faced as women.
Women’s unequal status does not emanate from the cervix but from the origins of class society and private property – and with that the development of the role of the family as a social and economic institution. In that process, which took place over thousands of years, women were disadvantaged. The exploitative capitalist classes have maintained that inequality in order to both divide the working class and super-exploit sections – such as through women’s lower pay and unpaid labour in the home, as well as the way women’s bodies are used by the capitalist class to make enormous profits through the diet, fashion, cosmetics, leisure, and media industries, etc.
That process established that the family could play a useful role as an economic and social institution in the maintenance of class society including capitalism. Capitalism cannot therefore fully tolerate anything that challenges the family structure and LGBTQ+ people continue to face oppression. Under pressure of struggle, especially by LGBTQ+ people, rights have been won under capitalism such as equal marriage and legal rights. But the recent growth in attacks on trans people, which the current toxic atmosphere engenders and in the context of the capitalist crisis, can lead to all LGBTQ+ people facing increased harassment, discrimination and intimidation. It must be answered with collective resistance – an injury to one is an injury to all.
This is the context in which, in August 2020, the Canterbury Labour MP Rosie Duffield received press attention when she entered a Twitter spat about trans rights on the side of right-wing journalist Piers Morgan. This included her tweeting: “I’m a ‘transphobe’ for knowing that only women have a cervix…?!”.
Duffield was first elected in 2017 when Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto increased the Labour vote by four million and left the Tories without a majority. The following year Duffield faced disciplinary action by the local Constituency Labour Party because of her role in the campaign by the Labour right to remove Corbyn, recognising the threat posed to the capitalist system they defend. Unfortunately the right to democratic mandatory reselection had not been reintroduced by the Corbyn leadership.
In the run up to Labour’s 2021 conference, Duffield faced a backlash after she ‘liked’ similar cervix-related tweets and subsequently reported that she had been advised it was not safe for her to attend the event. There is nothing to be gained from an atmosphere or language that contributes to people fearing intimidation for expressing their fears or views.
One of the things about people who have cervixes, regardless of how they identify, is the need for access to healthcare. In the five years to 2020 sexual health service budgets were cut by 25%. Gynaecology has been disproportionately hit by the Covid-19 backlog. People who identify as men or non-binary and have a cervix are not responsible for this. Saying ‘only women have a cervix’ does nothing to improve health access for anyone. By taking the side of the Labour right to remove Corbyn, however, Duffield has undermined the fight to save the NHS from the Tories.
Starmer reprimanded Duffield on the BBC Andrew Marr show. He correctly said that trans individuals are among the “most marginalised and abused communities”. He is, however, no friend of trans and non-binary people who need to access public services, decent jobs, council homes, as well as to self-identify. At Labour’s conference he resuscitated Blairism – New Labour’s legacy in the NHS includes an acceleration of Thatcher’s marketisation strategy which contributed to its ill-preparedness for Covid and the aftermath, including those dangerous waiting lists.
The TransLives 2021 survey findings included that 98% of respondents described the transition-related healthcare available on the NHS as not completely adequate, with 47% responding that it is “not at all” adequate. A greater proportion of disabled trans people reported inadequacy of service.
By themselves trans people in Britain cannot fight for the services and rights they need. However, the workers’ movement has got both the capacity to bring together workers of all gender identities and to fight for decent health services for all, including specialised services. This starts with stopping the Tory attacks such as the Health Bill and building a coordinated fight for decent pay for NHS workers. The battle for a fighting leadership against the right-wing in the trade unions and the building of a new mass workers’ party, something to which the trade unions will be central, are both part of this.
But to win real equality for women and trans and non-binary people, a complete overturn of the existing order is necessary in every sphere: against oppressive economic and social relations, and constraining family and domestic relations too. The necessary starting point for such an overturn is ending capitalism. Liberating humanity from the poison of capitalist gender norms would then be possible. The working class is the agent of that socialist change.