Voices: What was Keir Starmer thinking with his Mumsnet reply?

Keir Starmer, leader of what we are politely enjoined to call “the opposition”, visited the offices of Mumsnet for a Q&A this week – as all heirs presumptive must – in order for that exercise in ritual humiliation to confer upon him an aura of indomitability.

“It’s good to do it again, I think this is my third time,” winced Sir Keir at the outset of his stint on the Mumsnet loveseat with shadow secretary of state for education, Bridget Phillipson – in the tone with which Dante must have addressed Virgil in purgatory.

Mumsnet is now rather past its heyday as the major platform where users post transphobic bigotry in Britain (its greatest hits include the so-called I Am Spartacus thread, campaigning against trans inclusion in the Girl Guides, and providing succour to Graham Linehan after the former comedian was booted from Twitter), but the parenting forum still offers a valuable opportunity for Labour to reconnect with the sort of people who use “woke” as a negative.

And the expected questions on trans rights didn’t take long to rear their heads (which, top tip, you should only ever look at in the mirrored surface of a shield), providing Starmer with a chance to look statesmanlike and sensible on a question that he knows is deemed absurd and juvenile by a tranche of the electorate that just so happens to contain many columnists.

A Mumsnet user wanted to know if Phillipson and Starmer agreed that it was wrong to call people bigots based on their concerns about child safeguarding. Now, I’ve never had media training, but I reckon I could handle that one. The question of child safeguarding becomes toxic fairly quickly, because absolutely everybody bar psychopaths want children to be safe, but people tend to disagree as to what children can safely do and learn about.

For instance, Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is banned in schools in 11 districts of the USA. Or in the UK, some vocal parents at Parkfield Primary in 2019 felt that children should not be given LGBT+ education in line with the government’s laws.

Now, on the Mumsnet sofa, Keir Starmer was being asked about the Cass review into gender services for young people, whose findings led to the announcement in July that the only NHS gender identity service for children, at the Tavistock and Portman foundation in London, would close in favour of regional hubs opening instead.

Coincidentally, many of the Tavistock’s former practitioners signed an open letter this week decrying the unsupportive stance of the Association of Clinical Psychologists UK (ACP-UK) and accusing the professional body of “contributing to an atmosphere of fear” around the provision of gender-related healthcare to young people in the wake of the Cass review.

The letter’s organisers, Dr Laura Charlton and Dr Aidan Kelly, asserted that if practitioners had left Tavistock, it was less because of their concerns about the running of the centre than because of the “toxic media and political environment surrounding the service”.

In answer to the question about the Cass review and child safeguarding, Starmer went on to state: “I feel very strongly that children shouldn’t be making these important decisions without the consent of their parents.”

This is a corker of a response, not least because it’s delivered unblinkingly to a forum called Mumsnet. In replying that way, Starmer supports the views of those who believe that under-16s with gender dysphoria can never meaningfully consent to going on puberty blockers.

The problem with that stance, which was taken by the High Court when it found in favour of Keira Bell against Tavistock, is that Gillick competence, a metric for assessing the capacity of a young person to make decisions independently, is established in medical law and underpins the ability of all young people to decide for themselves in medical questions, such as reproductive healthcare or whether to get a Covid vaccine. On that basis, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court verdict last year.

What Starmer has said is deeply serious, going against decades of legislation in Britain and tacitly undermining the principle of Gillick competence. At a time when abortion rights are being rowed back in the USA, floating the idea that a young person should always consult with their parents in terms of their healthcare is outrageous.

In August of this year, a Florida court held that a 16-year-old girl was not mature enough to have an abortion. In the USA, 21 states require parental consent for an abortion. Interestingly, Keira Bell’s lawyer, one Paul Conrathe, has a history of taking anti-abortion cases, and argued in 2021 that Gillick competence is “no longer fit for purpose”.

This question is quite important, at a time when the Tory minister for women – Marie Caulfield – can be somebody who voted against buffer zones outside of abortion clinics and backed cutting the abortion time limit, because it undermines the UK’s commitment to bodily autonomy for women.

Far from trans rights being antithetical to those of cis women, we see, in fact, how they go hand in hand on this question. Right-wing ideology is opposed to the issue of self-determination for women and LGBT+ people.

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Earlier this week, the feminist Julie Bindel expressed surprise that some in the gender-critical movement had been cosying up to the Proud Boys. But what could be less surprising, after the many overtures made to the gender-critical movement by various right-wing organisations over the last few years?

Right-wing rejection of the right to terminate a pregnancy and the right to receive trans-affirming healthcare go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.

I don’t think that a seasoned lawyer and former lefty like Starmer actually believes that a young girl could not consent to go on the pill or have an abortion, which leaves me to conclude that he is cynically triangulating and electioneering among those who think trans healthcare or support are always a threat to young people. Good luck to him with that tack, if so – but we should always be mindful that with the removal of some rights, others can fall.

After Roe v Wade was overturned by the US Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas suggested that the court should now reconsider rulings protecting same-sex relationships and access to contraception. When you come for the rights of others, don’t be so sure that the UK will always protect yours.