28 March 2022

Why is it still so difficult for Keir Starmer to say what a woman is?


The Keir Starmer sigh, denoting ‘I-can’t-believe-you-are-asking-this-again-I-thought-better-of-you’, is becoming almost as ubiquitous as the Jeremy Corbyn eye roll. Journalists are annoying when they ask questions you don’t want them to ask. And they are particularly annoying when they keep asking a question you refuse to answer.

Today it was the turn of Nick Ferrari on LBC. When he asked Starmer whether a woman can have a penis, he got a sigh so loud it prompted the veteran radio presenter to ask, ‘Have I offended you in some way?’

Starmer then produced his usual waffle: ‘I don’t think discussing this issue in this way helps…we need to find a way through this…I don’t like intolerance.’ This is terrible messaging from a former lawyer – who should know better than most the importance of words – when he has had plenty of time to decide how he, and his party, define what a woman is. 

What’s more, as scores of tweets pointed out, while he claims he wants to have an ‘open discussion’ about these issues, his actions tell a different story. He hasn’t talked to women’s rights groups, his own MP Rosie Duffield, wasn’t able to go to Labour conference because of her ‘gender-critical’ views, and Starmer’s office apparently has not responded to local constituents who have written to him about it.

Most of the population of the country has a good idea what they mean when they say ‘woman’, but because the ‘trans row’ is tearing the Labour party apart, Labour MPs are doing everything they can to avoid answering questions of basic fact. For some people, this seems like a single-issue subject which needs to be batted away, but as Starmer is finding, that really isn’t going to work.

Labour is supposed to be the party which defends marginalised people – but if you can’t even say what a woman is, you can’t protect our rights.

While some in Labour might imagine this is a Twitter culture war thing which most voters won’t even notice, stories such as trans woman Lia Thomas winning swimming competitions have huge cut through. People noticed, too, when Labour MP Charlotte Nichols accused those uneasy about Thomas competing of ‘lazy transphobia’.

When they appeared on a Mumsnet chat about women in the workplace a few weeks ago, Labour MP Stella Creasey and Tory MP Caroline Nokes were both apparently surprised to be asked so many questions about what constitutes womanhood. And then – ye Gods – there was David Lammy, who was convinced that Rosie Duffield’s liking a tweet saying ‘only women have a cervix’ was wrong, because apparently trans women can ‘grow’ a cervix. Reader, they can’t. 

I really want to know why Labour are still stuck with their messaging on this issue. The failure to come up with an answer to such a simple question shows an ineptitude which voters – however they feel about the issue – will notice. Just like with their Brexit policy in 2019 (Starmer’s brainchild, as it happens), we end up with a fudge that pleases no one.

In fact, it is their inability to come up with a definition of a woman which is helping fuel the culture wars. A clear answer would take at least some of the heat out of the situation – even if one extreme will continue to deny biology is real and the other will continue to insist that trans women should only be referred to as men.

Starmer needs to be a leader, not simply acquiesce to the views of a vocal few. He of all people should know the public don’t like a Labour party beset by internecine quarrels pursuing a minority agenda which few people understand. 

How would I do it if I was Starmer? I’d start with getting my words right. Starmer stumbles when he says he believes women need safe spaces, but also that trans women are women. Know the difference between gender and sex in this particular debate. This is incredibly basic stuff. 

And if I were him, I’d say there is a biological difference between males and females, and in some cases natal women need female-only spaces. Trans women are a section of womanhood who have their own needs and making life easier for trans people is something Labour must do. People need to be more polite and kind to each other; stop with the nasty slurs, listen to what people are worried about. 

The longer Starmer and his MPs continue to attempt to fudge the issue, the bigger problem it will become. Because journalists won’t stop asking about it – however loud the sigh. 

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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.