- Issy Clarke
Keir Starmer’s path to No 10
Updated: Feb 11
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
On Sunday 15th of January Keir Starmer was pressed by Laura Kuenssberg on her Sunday morning politics show on English tuition fees, NHS waiting lists and Scotland’s Gender Recognition Act.
The Labour leader appeared more confident than he has done in previous media appearances – and on the surface of it, he has every reason to be so. This is a politician approaching almost three years as leader of the Opposition, famously the most thankless job in British politics. During his time, he has successfully managed to bring Labour’s warring factions to a shaky armistice, and is increasingly regarded as Britain’s PM-in-waiting.
Yet Starmer stumbled when Kuenssberg probed him on the Gender Recognition Act. Vaguely citing “some concerns” with the provision allowing 16-year-olds to legally change their gender, he could not answer explicitly whether Labour would support extending a system of gender self-certification into England. When Kuenssberg pushed him further on why his party in Scotland had backed the proposals, it led to a bizarre moment in which Starmer seemed to suggest that Scottish Labour and UK Labour were separate political parties.
This is crucial because unlike the Conservatives, who are united in their opposition to gender self-ID laws, the political Left is splintered. Although those who voted Labour at the last election are generally more progressive on trans issues than Conservative voters, they are less united, and among all voters there is a waning of support for specific policies affecting trans people.
Asked whether they supported making it easier for trans people to change their gender, net disapproval among respondents that voted Conservative in 2019 went up by 51% between 2019 and 2022. Although the number of 2019 Labour voters expressing support remained steadily constant between 2019 and 2022, when asked if trans rights presented a threat to women’s only spaces, the proportion of respondents agreeing went up among both Labour and Conservative voters, by 26% and 73% respectively.
The primary problem from Labour’s perspective is that to win an election, it needs to win back the swathes of Middle England that swung Tory in 2019. Its current tactic of strategic ambiguity pleases no one, and will be portrayed as weak in an election campaign. Yet offering an unequivocal support for gender Self-ID will provide ample space for the Tories to hammer the message of Labour as ‘woke’ and out of touch with the average voter.
Of course, elections are rarely fought on single issues, and Labour will be keen to fight the election on home-turf issues such as the NHS. Indeed, it has been widely speculated that the 2024 election is Labour’s to lose.
Yet if there is one lesson that the Labour leadership should take from recent years, it is never to under-estimate the capacity for Conservative electoral strategists to win elections – and after Sunday, Lynton Crosby and Isaac Levido, the architects of Brexit and Boris Johnson’s 2019 victory, will be smelling blood.
As things stand, the trans-rights debate may, under the harsh light of an election campaign, expose Starmer’s efforts to re-package the Labour party as superficial. A preview for this was visible yesterday during a Commons debate following the Conservative government’s decision to block the Act from taking effect in Scotland, when the Labour MP Rosie Duffield was heckled from her own side after expressing support for the government.
Without a line on Gender self-ID, Labour may face a drubbing in 2024. The Conservatives have in the past reaped the benefits of instigating a culture war – whether over statues, immigration and gender – while the Left have struggled. Starmer needs to chart an intermediary course, that keeps Labour’s 2019 vote sweet without alienating Middle England.