24 March 2023

‘More positions than the Kama Sutra’ – we still don’t know what Keir Starmer really stands for


Reading Baroness Casey’s report this week into the genuinely heinous failings of the Metropolitan Police feels a bit like watching Rome burn. How are the public supposed to have any confidence in the forces of law and order, if its ranks include racists, misogynists and even rapists and murderers?

It all feels so corrupt, so degraded, so in keeping with a wider feeling that things in this country simply aren’t functioning: you can’t catch a train on time, you can’t get a GP appointment and criminals seem able to operate with impunity.

Amid this pervasive malaise, I desperately want to believe in something new. Unfortunately, that something is certainly not Keir Starmer.

True, the Labour leader’s big crime speech yesterday, including a commitment to tackle violence against women and girls, struck broadly the right note. A commitment to deal with people smoking cannabis on the street may sound deeply uncool to our more hip commentators, but it will resonate with many voters who are fed up with low-level crime and anti-social behaviour affecting their quality of life.  As the mother of teenage boys, I was also pleased to hear him talking about the scourge of knife crime. Whether he will succeed in an ambitious target to halve such offences is another question altogether.

Likewise, I wonder how realistic his pledge to halve domestic violence will be, given the shocking scale of the problem. Between two and three women a week are killed by men, in 60% of cases by men they know – that so much violence is domestic clearly makes it that much harder to crack down on.

To give him his due, Starmer has at least come up with some ideas: specialist domestic abuse workers in police control rooms; specialist rape units and dedicated rape courts. which will hopefully increase the appallingly low percentage of rape cases that currently end in a conviction.

But I still have serious hesitations about Starmer’s overall approach. He may burnish his crime-fighting credentials with his time as Director of Public Prosecutions, but one might just as well ask why he campaigned against the deportation of foreign prisoners, some of whom went on to reoffend in the UK. Is he really going to be tough on crime, or is he just striking a crowd-pleasing pose?

I and many other women have similar concerns when it comes to safeguarding single sex spaces. In 2021, speaking to the LGBT website Pink News,  he promised to update the Gender Reform Act to introduce ‘self-declaration for trans people’ – the very reform which caused Nicola Sturgeon such grief, and which the Scottish Labour party whipped its MSPs to vote for. 

Having seen how unpopular that policy was – and with reports that his own advisors have told him the policy is a vote loser – Starmer now says he’s planning to roll back a little on gender ID. ‘You don’t make changes that you can’t bring the public along with, which is why in Scotland they should reset the situation,’ he said yesterday.

As with so many issues, Starmer seems to prefer fence-sitting to making clear where he stands and what he would do in government. It’s particularly relevant given the farcical goings on north of the border, where supposedly grown-up politicians couldn’t see that a male rapist was making a mockery of the law by pretending to transition soon after being arrested.

Starmer claimed yesterday to have a ‘very, very clear position’ on how to balance the rights of women and transgender people, though he seemed hard-pressed to explain what it actually was. Just like with his approach to Brexit back in 2019 – a disastrous attempt at triangulation that ended up appealing to neither Remainers nor Leavers – it feels like neither side of the debate has a reason to trust him.

Tellingly, when he talked about the progress of women’s rights he said: ‘We must not roll back or retreat from any of that, and one of them is safe spaces.’ Did he just forget or deliberately omit the words ‘single sex’ when he was thinking about those safe spaces?

I have little sympathy with the extreme left of the Labour party, but I can see why many of them see Starmer as wily and duplicitous; he ran a leadership campaign praising Jeremy Corbyn to the rafters and promising to continue with the radicalism of his leadership, only to turn around and junk many of those promises soon after becoming leader. As one Labour member put it pithily to me, ‘he has more positions than the Kama Sutra‘.

You can understand why Starmer is running scared of the gender issue, given its potential to divide the people he wants to vote for Labour. But the task of leadership is, ultimately, to lead, not just prevaricate. And it could end up coming back to bite him if he goes into the next election still unable to answer that most basic of questions: ‘What is a woman?’.

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Nicole Lampert is a freelance journalist.

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