Wednesday, 30 May 2018

The madness of self-identification in a political party

Image result for transgender logosWhile one can guarantee that on the streets of British provincial towns, it is not exactly an issue high on most people’s agenda, it is clear that, on Twitter and in the political bubble that is Westminster politics, the tricky area of trans politics has in recent months taken a huge step into the limelight.

Last week, Labour, for the first time, declared that people who declare themselves to be trans should be accepted as such within the party, without question. Obviously it is not intrinsically “trans-phobic” to have concerns about the fairness or viability of a mechanical process, but that is exactly the charge now being levelled at anyone in that category. And such criticism is, in most cases, because people genuinely see that such a policy is open to abuse.

Like activist David Lewis who, to draw attention to the potential for abuse, declared himself a woman but only “on Wednesdays” and put himself forward to be Women’s Officer in his local CLP. Satire, yes, but an important point – who is to say he is any less worthy of consideration than someone who says he is a woman five days, or seven days a week? Where do you draw the line?

No, rather like the penalty for criticising the Dear Leader himself, anyone currently raising concerns about self-id on Twitter (for the record, we are not talking about Neanderthal men, the critics are largely women) is now risking a torrent of online abuse. And Lewis is currently suspended from the party for his pains.

To avoid complications and focus on the right issue, let’s assume for the moment that Labour’s positive discrimination intervention at three separate points in its parliamentary selection processes is completely fair and does what it says on the tin. This is to avoid the thorny debate about, at the very least, All Women Shortlists, which have been the cause of much controversy (not to mention having been ruled illegal, until a Labour government itself changed the law to make this not so). So, for simplicity, let’s assume that it all currently works.

Why then, would you suddenly change the rules, such that any man who decided to call themselves a woman can now stand as a candidate under said positive discrimination rules, whether they were genuinely trans or not?

We are not talking about everyday practical things, such as using a different toilet, although even that is fraught with difficulties. But that can be dealt with outside the party.

Here we are talking about a process which has legal weight, which could ultimately provide you with access to a well-paid job and some reasonable measure of local, or even national, fame.

Bizarrely, it is not even the first time that Labour has used self-identification, and even in the more minor way it has been used for many years, it has been self-evidently open to some level of abuse. That is, the signs that self-identification in any sphere was problematic have always been there. And it’s largely about the potential for a definition to leave room for “interpretation”.

I’ll explain. For years, Labour has allowed people to self-identify by race. The essential argument is this: if you are from an ethnic minority, you are favoured in its selections, because it is assumed that you are suffering from some level of discrimination which will make it less likely for you to either succeed or apply in the first place.

But what is “from an ethnic minority”, anyway?

Okay, so for example, if you look Chinese, come from a Chinese family and have a Chinese name, you may (or not) self-identify as Chinese – whether first- or second-generation. You may suffer from discrimination and the process may fix that.

Now suppose you are second-generation Greek, as was one candidate in a selection I remember. You speak accentless English, your parents came from another EU country, your skin is pretty much the same colour as mine, although you may have a slightly unusual name (don’t we all in modern Britain). But you are classed “ethnic minority” and have a leg-up in the selection because you self-identified. Now suppose you are French, or German. Should you have a leg-up as well? You see the problem?

And what if you were Jewish? Technically you would have to have a mother who was Jewish but, if you self-id, perhaps your grandmother is enough. Or your father. You could be German, with a Jewish-sounding name. No-one is checking, after all.

Quite probably such pathological cases with ethnicity-related self-id are relatively few. But the above argument is to make a point: self-id is fraught with problems. And these problems are nothing, repeat, nothing to do with prejudice against trans people, any more than it is to do with racial prejudice. It’s about a workable process versus an unworkable one.

Most disturbingly, the trans debate seems to have split Labour. On the one hand, LGBT Labour (including many prominent parliamentarians) has largely seen trans as the new gay; that is, an oppressed minority which need to be nurtured and supported, just as gay men and women were in the 1980s, so that they could finally win equality over the next couple of decades.

A noble aim. But in the context of selections, trans is not the new gay. It cannot be. While trans men and women certainly suffer discrimination of a kind that has been rapidly diminishing for gay men and women in recent years, the argument is not the same because gender is not sexuality.

To explain: we do not have (to my knowledge) legal definitions of gay or straight which can be used, for example, to secure a preference (for example, an All Gay Shortlist is still yet to happen in Labour). Neither would such a preference be legal, currently. Hence there does not appear to be, at least here, the risk of a candidate, say, pretending to be gay to secure an advantage, because there isn’t one. Phew. And it’s just as well, because such a phenomenon would set back the cause of gay rights decades.

But, in contrast, this is not the case with trans. It’s madness. You are applying a subjective rule to something which has legal standing. You just can’t do that and have it all work swimmingly.

In short: Labour has, its eyes blinded by its laudable wish to support minorities of all kinds, just wandered into an area of utterly dubious logic and which could cause terrible and visible problems of a legal and constitutional nature, not to mention headlines that would just write themselves for tabloid newspaper editors.

There needs to be a better way of dealing with this without stamping on the rights of either trans women or non-trans women, and Labour needs to find it. Sharpish.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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