Molly Mulready, the proud mum of a transgender son and a lifelong Labour Party activist, makes a desperate plea to Labour leader Keir Starmer to finally get off the fence and do something about the relentless transphobia coming from some corners of the party. Because trans rights are human rights, and silence on trans rights and transphobia is doing Labour a grave disservice.
The Labour Party is an institution which was part of my life for decades – one which I look at now with sadness and disquiet, as I see the way it’s treating transgender people like my son.
My parents are lifelong members of the party – being Irish immigrants to London many moons ago, they found the Labour Party a place of welcome when, in particular during the IRA’s appalling bombing campaigns, there was much anti-Irish feeling in this country.
Party meetings took place in our house, and there were always people coming and going with piles of leaflets urging everyone to “Vote Labour”. Those people were anti-apartheid campaigners, Chile solidarity campaigners, people fundraising for striking miners and miscarriage of justice victims, to advance gender equality, to support Kurdish people, to welcome refugees. I remember them all – they shaped my life as a child and my politics as an adult.
I was taken canvassing as a small child and then as a parent myself did the same, during one particularly intense election even taking my youngest two out canvassing in a double buggy. What was I thinking? I have no idea – the candidate (me) wasn’t even that good!
My sister and brother have also stood for election, proudly representing the Labour Party. Our mum was a hardworking councillor for decades. I count past and present Labour politicians among my dearest friends. I’ve canvassed in biting cold, in heatwaves, when I was heavily pregnant and when I was disgusted by one policy or another, but still knew in my heart it was the right thing to do – perfect it is not, but in pursuit of social justice, the Labour Party is the most powerful vehicle we have.
It is also a party to which I owe a personal debt – I had my first child when I was a teenager, in 1999, by which time Labour had been in power for two years.
As I took my first innocent steps as a young mother, I had a properly funded welfare state to back me up: Labour tripled child benefit, delivered Sure Start, child tax credit, the building schools for the future project, and the decent homes programme – all of which directly benefited us. Labour went on to give Child Trust Funds to every child, even those whose parents hadn’t a hope of saving for their children. My daughter turned 18 last year and gained access to her fund – another moment of gratitude to Labour. She will now go off to university with some savings in her bank account.
I understand that keeping controversies to a minimum and avoiding numerous big policy announcements this far out from the next general election is a strategy designed to actually win that election. I support that – the single most important thing a Labour Party can do is get into power. If that means some compromising and strategic silence here and there, I am all for it. A purist Labour Party in opposition would have been little use to this teenage mother all those years ago – a Labour Party which had adopted the strategies necessary to get it into government however, completely changed my life.
Perfect it is not, but in pursuit of social justice, the Labour Party is the most powerful vehicle we have.
So I get it, Keir Starmer. I really do get it.
But there are some matters of principle on which the Labour Party must not compromise – and the rights of transgender people to live peaceful lives, to be safe at school and at work, to have the healthcare they need, and not have the truth of their identity ceaselessly debated, fall into that category.
This is a basic civil rights issue, one which Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were crystal clear about on their campaign trail, and addressed immediately on taking office – their feet hardly under the table when they unapologetically rescinded all the transphobic nonsense implemented by Donald Trump.
Labour should be doing the same. Transgender people are not policy choices to be polled and tested with the red wall before a word of solidarity is sent in their direction – they are people. Silence in the face of the barrage of prejudice they face from within the Labour Party not only does trans people a great disservice, but does Labour’s proud history a disservice too.
Is it truly the case that the party that gave us the Race Relations Act, the Disability Discrimination Act, civil partnerships, and the abolition of Section 28, is the same party that today maintains a disciplined, institutional silence when it comes to discrimination against transgender people from within its own ranks?
There is a Labour MP openly joining in mockery of trans people in the most crude and graphic terms. There are prominent, loyal activists stepping down because of transphobia and there are hardworking young staffers doing the same having listened to their consciences. There are people who have raised their concerns in private, loathe to harm the party by doing so in public, but who have been left with no choice because of this perplexing lack of solidarity from those at the top table.
There are committed, clever, aspiring Labour politicians – like Heather Herbert, a trans woman standing for election in Scotland in May – who told me she just wants trans people to be taken seriously in the Labour Party; and then there are trans people outside the membership, who may have thought the Labour Party would be the one place they could rely on for support, but who are instead feeling let down and exposed.
Transgender people are not policy choices to be polled and tested with the red wall before a word of solidarity is sent in their direction – they are people.
It is no longer enough for the leadership to stay silent about this. It is time, dare I say it, for the leadership to actually do some leading. A consideration of transgender people through the prism of Labour values will find the leadership standing with transgender people, I am sure, because Labour values are all about standing with minority groups who are facing unjustified hatred so that they don’t have to do so alone.
These are Labour Party basics. And yes, putting them into action on behalf of trans people will involve taking some flack, having disagreements, and probably being written about in less than complimentary terms by some prominent white, wealthy, journalists.
That should not stop you.
It is easy to do the right thing when it will be met with wall to wall approval, anyone can do that. It is much harder to do the right thing when it might be met with criticism – but leading is not about waiting for everyone else to think a certain way and then agreeing with them – that is the job of a follower.
A leader gets out in front, makes the arguments, explains, reframes, listens, persuades, repeats as many times as necessary that this, this, is the right thing, and here’s why. They do so with dignity, with eloquence, they don’t score points, nor fight one type of hate with another. They role model open-mindedness, and compassion, and courage, until people listen, and agree, and vote for you, and your party of principle, so that you can get into power and stop talking about the right thing, because you are busy doing the right thing.
Data gathered by the Equality and Human Rights Commission last year indicated that 82 per cent of people here hold no prejudice towards transgender people and our family experience chimes with that completely – people here are utterly decent, and the small minority of unfortunately loud trans-hostile people in the Labour Party are not representative of the kindness which characterises most reactions to our family.
But those people are in your party, and their voices are amplified by their trans-hostile comrades in the media, and so together they are contributing to the truly horrible atmosphere which is at risk of defining the experience of trans people in Britain today.
This is on your watch, Keir Starmer, so this is a direct appeal to you to step up and do something about it.