Culture War breaks out at Labour Party Leadership Hustings.
Updated: May 15, 2020
A culture war broke out at the Labour LGBT Leadership hustings on Thursday night in Manchester as women, lesbian and bisexual campaigners, myself included, interrupted an event in which all eight straight candidates were challenged on their stance on transgender rights. We were were assaulted by both security and members of the audience but persisted nevertheless, remaining seated, asking questions until the end of the event.
The leadership campaign had heated up in recent weeks after Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long Bailey signed a pledge from the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights. The pledge declared that Trans women are women and trans men are men and that anybody questioning that position should be expelled from the party.
We had come prepared with a list of questions that we hoped to ask the leadership hopefuls, but upon arrival were told that questions had been pre-moderated in accordance with Pink News’ editorial policy, mission statement and core values. It was claimed that audience members had a chance to submit questions but none of us had such an opportunity when we booked our tickets. In a slick and heavily stage managed affair the deputy leadership candidates took to the stage first and were asked vital questions like
Soho or Canal St?
Madonna or Cher?
What’s your favourite gay anthem?
The candidates seemed to all be in agreement that trans women were women and this was not a debate. Many had signed a pledge which labelled Woman's Place and LGB Alliance as hate groups and demanded the expulsion of its members from the party. Whilst such totalitarian moves had been widely condemned by Labour party members; on stage the candidates tone deaf answers seemed oblivious to the conflict between women’s and trans rights. As good LGBT+ allies they were keen to acknowledge their straight privilege and insisted they would listen to the lived experience of the community. Great, I thought, I'm sure to receive a receptive response to my concerns as an LGBT+ person. The proceedings were dominated by transgender issues with the word lesbian being uttered just twice; once, ironically enough by Linda Riley in reference to Lesbian Visibility Week. All candidates were united in their agreement that expulsions from the party for transphobia should be made much easier.
In the deputy leadership hustings Dawn Butler said she was sick of soundbites because trans rights are human rights. She warned us that ‘every time you criticise a (trans person) you put another (trans) person at risk.’
Richard Burgon is a candidate who is said to have a more moderate stance on matters, as his campaign has been chaired by Laura Pidcock. She has been branded a TERF for her insistence that 'the women’s movement needs the space to talk about sex and gender without fear of being no-platformed.’ Disappointingly however, Burgon spoke of his pride at the Gender Recognition Self-ID pledge in the Labour Party manifesto and praised the charity Mermaids; who campaigners accuse of pushing regressive and homophobic stereotypes onto children in schools.
Labours only Scottish MP Ian Murray thought we should start all conversations with the position that transwomen are women. He wanted to take a zero tolerance approach to bigotry but didn’t think we should get bogged down in details. We wonder if a workable definition of transphobia is one such pesky detail...
A&E doctor Rosena Allen-Khan said that the only hostile environment she wanted in her party is one that makes bigots feel unsafe. She also wants to extend access to IVF to lesbian, bisexual AND trans women. She insisted being trans was not a medical issue but supported plans to increase funding for transgender healthcare nonetheless.
Angela Rayner stated that trans women were her priority in this debate and insisted that Labour all women shortlists must remain open to them. She said she wished that social media providers were able to make algorithms that made trans kids feel safe. Kids today are infected by hate speech she said, which was very much not free speech.
As the deputy leadership 'debate' drew to a close we realised that there would be no opportunity to ask any of our carefully prepared questions and we decided to take a more direct approach.
Lisa Nandy kicked off the leadership debate by talking about the abuse she had received after being challenged at a previous hustings to clarify her position regarding sef-ID and sex offenders claims to transgender status.
‘That’s because you said you’d put rapists into women’s prisons!’ shouted a member of our group.
Nandy ignored the interjection but later went on to speak about the problems in the Labour party that ‘We’ve lost the ability to understand one another... it’s become a binary, reductionist debate where you're forced to pick a side...that isn’t the way we do things in the Labour party. That’s the way the Tories do things, we do far better than that...if we want to go out and make a society free from discrimination then we have to go out and show the country that we can be kind and compassionate.’
‘Why did you sign a pledge calling LGB Alliance a hate group then?' I shouted from the audience.
‘I signed that pledge precisely for this reason because we have to do better than this as a level of debate in this party’. Once again, with Pink news moderating questions it was difficult to know how we were supposed to discuss these matters.
‘I had no way of submitting a question beforehand this isn’t democratic!’ I shouted. Whilst interrupting a politician might seem disruptive we have no way of having our voices heard. Here is the question we prepared earlier and what I would have said if I had been given an opportunity.
Point 9 of the Labour Campaign for Trans Rights reads Organise and fight against transphobic organisations like LGB Alliance. I am part of this organisation. This is a 3 part question: 1. Can you explain why lesbian, gay and bi people should not be able to meet and organise around issues which specifically effect people who are same sex attracted? 2. Can you provide evidence of transphobia from LGB Alliance? and 3. Can you detail what the proposed fight against me and my organisation looks like?
By this point tensions were mounting. I had been angrily told by several members of the audience to ‘Shut Up you TERF!’ A member of security came towards me and attempted to pull me from my seat. When that failed he tried to grab my bag.
‘If you don’t come with me I’m calling the police.’
‘Call them' I said 'I’m not going anywhere.’
At this point, mindful of the optics of male security guards manhandling women from their seats, a female employee intervened and told me I could remain as long as I promised to be quiet. All three panellists witnessed this. I wonder if this is what they mean by a kinder gentler politics?
When they were asked whether they would ban conversion therapy another member of our group shouted that transitioning children IS conversion therapy. ‘Fuck off you TERF!’ shouted another angry man in the audience.
I interjected in support and so a missile was thrown at me. ‘This is not very comradely behaviour’ I replied. At this point a member of our group asked the security team to intervene but they failed to manage the aggression of the person who assaulted me. Instead they harassed a member of our group who left in disgust, followed out in solidarity by an angry Labour member, who said he was appalled by the the violence directed at us.
If we would have been given an opportunity to ask a question we would have asked:
The Labour party has announced it's intention to ban conversion therapy. Over the past 10 years there has been a 4000% increase of young girls - most of whom are lesbians, being referred to the Tavistock clinic for gender reassignment surgery. Are the panel alarmed by this figure? Do they share concerns of clinicians who left the service citing fears that this was a form of gay conversion therapy.
But once again, it felt like at this debate these matters were NOT A DEBATE. Towards the end of the hustings veteran social justice campaigner Helen Steel interjected with:
'Can any of you define the word woman? We can’t talk about sexism if we don’t know what woman and man means. How can you defend women's rights and women’s single sex exemptions if you don’t know what the definition of woman is? Why are Stonewall campaigning to remove women’s rights to single sex spaces? When are you gonna defend women’s rights to talk about these issues?!’
‘Probably after you’ve been dragged out for interrupting the entire fucking hustings’ shouted yet another angry man in the audience.
‘Because women’s voices are being shut down the entire time during this debate!’ She replied, at which point a security guard attempted to pull her from her seat and only desisted when he realised he was being filmed.
Keir Starmer looked on with a mixture of consternation and recognition. Was he realising that the woman currently being manhandled by security was Helen Steel?
Starmer assisted Helen Steel in the “McLibel” case, in which the might of the McDonald's Corporation came down against two environmental activists and private citizens. You can hear more details about their relationship in this episode of our Podcast here. We spoke to her about Spy Cops, McLibel and the harassment she has received from the social justice movement for her stance on women's rights.
Attempting to move things along host and Pink New’s CEO Benjamin Cohen insisted we were not going to have an audience debate. Yeah, no shit Sherlock, I thought, we can’t be having a hustings with questions from the audience now can we?
Candidates continued to ignore the scenes on the floor, instead discussing their favourite Pride moments. One time Rebecca Long Bailey was abducted by a random man who picked her up and dragged her off into the crowd. It was hilarious. The audience all laughed. Kier Starmer got some glitter on his face once, there's pictures of it and everything. ‘Why are you talking about glitter, why aren’t we talking about misogyny!’ shouted a member of our group. Indeed.
As events drew to a close I turned to the woman next to me, who had been hit by the missile thrown by an angry woman earlier in the evening. ‘I’m so sorry you got hit, I didn’t want to drag you into this.’ We’d been chatting before the start of the talk. She was the type of door knocking Labour activist who is the backbone of the Labour movement. I was nervous of her response. I didn't know if I could take another angry activist calling me a bigot. ‘It’s OK’ she said, 'I wanted to stay and make sure you were OK. Their behaviour is not acceptable.’ If she is reading this article I want to thank that woman, whoever she is. Small acts of bravery like that show what the Labour party really stands for.
Whether you agree with our tactics in interrupting the hustings in such a manner there are important questions that need to be asked but the Labour party has re-framed debate as hate and biology as bigotry. They have created a hostile environment for feminists, as our concerns are ignored and shouted down with violent rhetoric and threats of expulsion. Nevertheless women will not remain silent on this matter. To quote another Manchester firebrand, Emmeline Pankhurst, "I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion."
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