11 August 2023

Anatomy of a bandwagon: how self-ID captured Britain’s political class


At the end of July, Labour announced it was finally dropping its proposal to reform the Gender Recognition Act to allow individuals to ‘self-identify’ their legal sex via statutory declaration. This would have enabled any adult to be legally recognised as a member of the opposite sex if they requested it.

Needless to say, there are many problems with this proposal, from the running of women’s hospital wards, sports teams, et cetera, to data collection and research. By allowing people to decide for themselves which sex they are labelled as, self-ID renders any law, policy, or guideline that refers to a person’s sex essentially meaningless.

That Labour have abandoned the policy is not surprising. Self-ID is opposed not just by a majority of the British public, but also by a majority of Labour voters. It is also beset by bad publicity, since its introduction in Scotland at the end of 2022 was immediately followed by multiple high-profile cases of sexually violent men identifying as women and being placed in women’s prisons, resulting in the SNP being forced by Westminster into a humiliating U-turn on the policy. The Conservative government itself only officially ruled out self-ID in 2020. Labour are therefore only the latest party to have to walk back on this proposal.

The more pertinent question is how such a policy got into manifestos in the first place. The lack of public support was easily foreseeable, as were the trans-identifying sex offenders who caused such embarrassment for the SNP. Feminist groups have been loudly sounding the alarm about the many problems associated with self-ID for the best part of a decade. Why were they ignored?

In his new book How Westminster Works… and Why It Doesn’t, Ian Dunt argues that unwise policy decisions are routinely enacted as a result of perverse incentives baked into the political system. Dunt uses as an illustration the privatisation of probation in 2015, when Chris Grayling was Justice Secretary.

Privately owned companies were tasked with delivering intervention programmes, in return for which they would be paid £1,000 per crime that was statistically determined to have been prevented. The scheme rapidly showed itself to be an unmitigated failure: many of the rehabilitation companies went out of business, and serious offences by people on probation rose by over 25% in just two years, with at least two specific homicides established to have a direct link to inadequate probation services.

Prior to its rollout, the proposal had been heavily criticised by experts who predicted many of the issues that later arose. But their concerns were ignored by a team determined to press ahead no matter what. Indeed, Grayling reportedly justified the cancellation of smaller pilots, designed to test whether the scheme would work on a national scale, by saying that ‘sometimes, we just have to believe something is right and do it’.

What this episode illustrates is that politicians are often seized by the need to attempt something memorable and eye-catching during a short stint in power, whether it works or not. Following Stafford Beer’s maxim that ‘the purpose of a system is what it does’, one might conclude that our political system often has dismayingly little to do with enacting policies that actually benefit the country.

Which brings us back to the self-ID farrago. After the successful introduction of same-sex marriage, the Conservative government were open to a new ‘progressive’ policy and were only too happy to be spoon-fed one by lobbyists, most notably the LGBT charity Stonewall. Stonewall itself had been a gay rights organisation as recently as 2015, when it made the decision to include trans issues in its remit, after the passage of same-sex marriage into law had made it into a campaigning behemoth in need of a cause.

The Conservatives opened a public consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act with a view to introducing self-ID, an issue which was virtually unheard of amongst the wider public. Other parties, sensing a progressive bandwagon to be jumped on, didn’t wait for the consultation’s outcome to be released and skipped straight to putting self-ID into their manifestos for the 2019 election.

At every stage, criticism of the proposal fell on deaf ears. Maria Miller, who was Minister for Women and Equalities at the time, claimed that the only negative responses to the government’s consultation came from ‘women purporting to be feminists’. And when asked to comment on the threat to women’s rights posed by self-ID, former Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson responded with ‘I don’t believe there is a problem’.

Often, proponents of this policy quite frankly had no idea what they were talking about. As late as 2021, Labour MP David Lammy dismissed women with concerns about self-ID as ‘dinosaurs’ who were ‘hoarding rights’, before going on to reveal his own basic ignorance on the topic. Interviewed on LBC, he claimed that trans women have cervixes (‘I understand that a cervix is something you can have after various procedures, hormone treatments, all the rest of it’) – a statement that could only be made by someone who either did not know what a cervix was, did not know what a trans woman was, or both.

It seems that, for those who had decided to attach their political persona to the cause of self-ID, there was essentially no interest in understanding the concerns of those who objected. Instead of being viewed as useful feedback contributing to better policy, it was seen as an irritating impediment. Just as with the privatisation of probation, we can conclude that getting it right was not the goal. The goal was simply to get the legislation passed, steamrollering criticism if necessary, and hang the consequences. We can only be grateful that in this case, the results were so immediate and so self-evidently absurd that it was impossible for the public not to notice.

It might be tempting to see self-ID as a bizarre dream the political class is just now waking up from. But it’s more than that: it illustrates just how disconnected politics can be from outcomes related to the good of the country. It should prompt us to think seriously about how to move towards a system that favours accountability, integrity, and competence.

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Ellen Pasternack is a writer and researcher.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.