Catriona Stewart

When will Labour get specific about its stance on gender reform?

(Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In a general election campaign that has oftentimes presented scenarios that feel like a fever dream, the surreal headlines keep coming. ‘Sir Keir Starmer agrees with Sir Tony Blair,’ we read this week, ‘that a man has a penis and a woman has a vagina’. Newspaper articles focused on two Labour leaders in simpatico and this is the outcome? ‘Tony’s right about that,’ Sir Keir said, in response to his colleague’s statement of fact: ‘He put it very well.’ That clattering noise is the sound of women’s eyebrows shooting from their heads to hit the ceiling; women who have said – and said repeatedly – this very thing, only to receive abuse.

While the manifesto pledges may differ in substance, they have in common the fact they are both frustratingly vague.

What we have in the ongoing debate around sex and gender is a slow shifting in position brought by campaigning from gender critical women, by high-profile criminal justice cases and by the recent Cass Review of NHS gender services. This shifting of stance is evident in the two Labour manifestos. Yet, as expected, the positions of the UK Labour party and Scottish Labour do not marry up. The UK party pledges to ‘modernise, simplify and reform’ the ‘intrusive, outdated gender recognition law to a new process’. It further says it will ‘remove indignities for trans people’ but, crucially, will not de-medicalise that process; it will keep the need for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from a specialist doctor.

Scottish Labour settles on a promise to ‘modernise, simplify and reform’ gender recognition law while ensuring any changes are competent in relation to UK law – a pop here at the SNP. The nationalists’ attempt to reform gender recognition law was blocked by Scotland Secretary Alister Jack on the grounds that it negatively impacted on the UK-wide Equality Act. Crucially, it does not mention the need for a medical diagnosis to change gender. It is, then, hard to see how Scottish Labour’s approach to gender recognition reform will differ from the failed attempt by the Scottish parliament to introduce the gender bill last year.

This creates problems for the party in Scotland: it is an easy attack line for opponents to say that Scottish Labour’s plans are nothing but a return of the SNP’s contentious and defeated self-ID. But here is a further issue for Labour. While the manifesto pledges may differ in substance, they have in common the fact they are both frustratingly vague. How will the process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate be modified and modernised, simplified and reformed? Are we, in Scotland, now to endure a fresh run over of the same entrenched arguments on sex and gender that have dogged public discourse for the past five years or might Scottish Labour have some new path to reason mapped out? If so, it might like to show its hand sooner rather than later. While Sir Keir and Anas Sarwar are relentlessly banging out the word ‘change’ to entice voter support at the ballot box, not all change is good – and certainly not the sort of change that leads to rapists in female prisons. We’ve been here before and no one wants to go back.

The SNP has fostered a climate of vibes-based policy making based on framing Scotland as a kinder, nicer, more tolerant place.

Scottish Labour’s MSPs were whipped to vote in support of last year’s gender bill but Sarwar has since refused to confirm that he would vote for the legislation again. There is frustration from both MSPs and MPs cross-party that this issue refuses to go away. Speaking to those out on the campaign trail now, a common refrain is that identity issues are not coming up on the doorstep. One imagines there are a great many weighty political issues that do not come up on the doorstep – to the SNP’s dismay, Scottish independence seems one such during this current campaign – but that does not mean they should not be high on the agenda of our elected representatives. That spaces once consecrated to women are becoming unisex is an obviously political matter; ditto the medicalised altering of the bodies of young children. When these are framed as identity issues they are undermined. They are also issues of material reality with practical consequences for third sector, criminal justice and health services.

A large part of Scottish Labour’s problem in setting out its position on the issue is that the SNP has fostered a climate of vibes-based policy making based – on framing Scotland as a kinder, nicer, more tolerant place. The issue with a #BeKind ethos is that it allows legislators to gloss over glaring gaps in policy by shutting down those with pressing questions as simply not being nice. 

Scottish Labour has not fallen for the SNP line that Scotland is simply better and purer than elsewhere, but it is difficult to see how it can merge its position with UK Labour without suffering reputational damage among trans and allied communities. This creates an interesting tussle between UK Labour’s new-found pragmatism under Keir Starmer and pitching to a Scottish electorate used to being told it’s sweeter and more progressive than everyone else. 

This is less of an issue for Scottish Labour now. It is a devolved problem the party will more seriously face at the 2026 Holyrood election. What we can expect to hear in the interim is the rattling sound of cans being kicked along roads. These are tough, complex matters and solutions will never please everyone. No party is getting it right but Scottish Labour faces a unique conundrum.  The party will be affected by the ramifications of gender recognition reform in England, and will face both pressure to fall into line with Westminster and pressure to chart a uniquely Scottish course.

Labour will not be allowed to stall on the issue. It must make clear its intentions – and soon. An unenviable task for Anas Sarwar, but one essential for any new age of change.