Monday 16 January 2023

Using Trans People as Political Pawns

Of the government's threat to block the Scottish Parliament's Gender Recognition Bill - now confirmed - Nicola Sturgeon said it would be a case of "using trans people ... as a political weapon." Correct. But the idea this is a wedge to allow Westminster to interfere directly with the votes and decisions of Holyrood is well down Rishi Sunak's list of priorities. There are more pressing concerns.

For the Tories, their recent conversion to protecting women's spaces and wellbeing is so much cynical bullshit. For 13 years they've chopped away at public provision in this country. Their cuts to social security, to the NHS, to local authorities, their introduction of the bedroom tax, attacks on child benefit, their shielding of spy cops, the police, and the military from prosecution, all of these measures, all of them, fall disproportionately on the heads of women. And, very obviously, they're only interested in trans people and opposing "women's rights" to them in as far they are pawns in their wretched war on woke. Sunak signalled as much when his new year address singled out refugees for more heavy handed action. A statement of intent that they mean to carry on as they have done, because there's nothing else.

How does this work then? Why is Sunak willing to blow up the Union to prevent people from legally changing their sex that would minimise harms and allow for a more dignified process? It's about trying to exploit divisions among his political opponents, and hoping to win over a few reactionary voters on the side. As we saw during their last spell in opposition, the lurch into anti-immigrant, anti-EU politics was more than the Tories talking to themselves and lounging about their political comfort zones. It served to consolidate and stabilise the party base after its utter evisceration at the hands of Tony Blair. With a 1997-style wipe out among the more optimistic prognoses facing the Tories in 18 months, cohering the base around a straightforwardly bigoted politics now increases the chances of a viable party making it through the coming trauma.

But it hasn't escaped the Tories' notice that it's the left, particularly its more establishment and media-oriented end that has had considerable difficulty with trans issues. Who might have been considered right on trendies a decade ago have used "feminist" opposition to so-called "gender ideology" as their own path to reaction. The SNP have and are having their own war on about trans people. The Greens have largely failed to capitalise on Labour's open embrace of establishment-friendly politics because of internal conflict on matters trans, which got so bad the Scottish Greens formally dissolved their links with the party in England and Wales. And there is Labour. With leading Labour politicians genuflecting to transphobia, such as Rachel Reeves, Wes Streeting, and Jess Phillips, the rank-and-file and most of the wider left are allies and advocates of gender non-conformity, there's an opportunity here for the Tories to cause the opposition some serious discomfort.

Furthermore, because the Tories - with a little help from their friends - think Labour's base is socially conservative and obsess over the same hobby horses as they, trans rights are not only a wedge between the party's leadership and most of its activists, but could be wielded in the same way Boris Johnson drove Brexit between Labour leavers and their pro-remain party. The fact Sunak is willing to countenance a constitutional crisis is neither here nor there. He stands in the tradition of a recent Tory party that threw away Britain's membership of the European Union to save a couple of seats at the 2015 general election, and rhetorically committed itself to breaking the law in order to get Brexit done. Now the fate of the Conservative Party is very uncertain thanks to its long-term decline, causing trans people more pain and anguish is a price Sunak is willing to make them pay if it affords his party some stability. And as for the constitutional order and legitimacy of the UK state, what's the point if the Tories aren't at the centre of it all?

This is characteristic of Tory short-termism. Deal with the problem now and pay the debt later. But the political debts are potentially huge. The Tories, leading Labour politicians, well-heeled celebrities, and other establishment worthies and lackeys with their attacks on trans people are causing entirely unnecessary suffering. It's a losing battle, and if any of them are around in 20 years time they'll be busy laundering their reputations and threatening to sic the courts on anyone who reminds them of their present transphobia. But for most working age people today and those who are in their teenage years, the orchestrated hysterics against trans people is driving a wedge alright, a values wedge between them and the Tories (as if they didn't have enough reasons to give them short thrift) but also against institutions of state as well. For identifying the Union with the most backward, reactionary and dying currents in British society is storing up severe problems when these are antithetical to the rising generation of workers. Sunak's efforts at creating a constitutional crisis over trans rights might afford him some satisfying points in the Westminster game, but its political consequences could reverberate for years to come.

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