Trans rights protest in London 9 July. Photo: London SP
Trans rights protest in London 9 July. Photo: London SP

This year’s annual British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey found that “attitudes towards people who are transgender have become markedly less liberal over the past three years”. The BSA found that “64% describe themselves as not prejudiced at all against people who are transgender, a decline of 18 percentage points since 2019 (82%)”. And that “just 30% think someone should be able to have the sex on their birth certificate altered if they want, down from 53% in 2019”.

Overall, the BSA findings do not represent a right-ward shift in the views of British society. On the contrary, looking back over survey responses of the last 40 years the report found a significant transformation of social attitudes in relation to sexual relationships and gender roles: “67% think a sexual relationship between two people of the same sex is never wrong, compared with 17% in 1983”, for example. While “support for an abortion being allowed in circumstances when the woman decides on her own that she does not want to have a child has risen from 37% in 1983 to 76% now”.

The apparently anomalous findings on trans rights are a product of specific processes over the last few years. The survey states that their direction and timing “have been largely triggered by the intense political debate and media discussion”.

The report reflects real-life suffering. Since 2011-12, the number of hate crimes recorded by police has more than tripled. The factors in these trends are not hard to identify. In last summer’s Tory leadership election, candidates competed to be seen as the most vicious in attacking trans people. Never mind that among the electorate of Tory members, trans issues came 26th and 27th out of 28 issues. The cost of living came much higher but featured little in the debate – because the Tories have no answers on that subject and attacks on trans people are a convenient diversion.

Anti-trans rhetoric again featured prominently at this year’s Tory conference and, in the party’s desperation to salvage votes, is likely to be to the fore in the general election next year.

Open one of the right-wing billionaire-owned newspapers and you are likely to see a trans-hostile article. There was a four-fold increase in press coverage between 2015 and 2020 according to the Independent Press Standards Organisation. In just one month, January of this year, the Daily Mail published 115 such articles.

The survey concludes that the reversal in attitudes on trans people suggests “a period effect similar to that which we witnessed in the 1980s for attitudes to homosexual relationships, with the emergence of HIV-AIDS and the introduction of Section 28”. This would also suggest that attitudes could become more tolerant, but a serious alternative needs to be on offer to the divide-and-rule anti-trans propaganda.

This is certainly not coming from the pro-capitalist Labour Party under Keir Starmer. Labour has dropped its support for self-identification. Asked at Labour Party conference whether he agreed with Sunak, Starmer said: “Yes of course”.

While most if not all trade unions have passed motions in support of trans rights, the leaderships have not intervened decisively in the situation. Therefore there is no clear challenge when Rishi Sunak is on the front of The Sun saying: “When it comes to women’s spaces, women’s prisons, changing rooms, sports, and health, I believe that biological sex really matters. I know what a woman is – and I’ll protect women’s rights and women’s spaces”.

The idea of trusting the Tories to protect women’s rights and women’s spaces is preposterous. They have slashed local government funding – which Labour councils failed to fight – a major factor in the more than 10,000 women escaping domestic abuse who were refused safe housing in the last year. Under the Tories, the Met Police are found to be institutionally sexist with 800 Met Police officers under investigation, facing sexual and domestic abuse claims and other accusations. Preposterous, yes; but answered, no.

Sunak is not the first to present an apparently permanently insoluble conflict of interests between trans rights and women’s rights. Because it hasn’t yet been decisively answered by the workers’ movement in struggle, he is able to pick this up in his attempt to distract voters from the multiple crises of his party and the capitalist system it defends.

‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ is the adage of the workers’ movement. To be meaningful it requires a clear programme against all discrimination and uniting the working class to fight for all rights. This must be linked to fighting for jobs, pay, homes, public services, and a socialist alternative. That has to be fought for in the unions.

That includes fighting for the unions to take steps towards building a working-class political voice. A new workers’ party would not only be able to bring together the struggles, including for trans rights, for women’s rights and against the cost-of-living crisis. It could coordinate and give a lead, steering them in an anti-capitalist, socialist direction.

Such a party could also play a role in challenging the false idea that the right to self-identify poses a threat to women’s rights. The evidence of the twenty countries that have legalised the right to self-identify is not abundant, but what there is does not back up Sunak et al’s position. In 2012, Argentina became the first country in the world to allow legal transition by self-declaration. A 2021 government study found that one trans woman was accused and convicted of sexual abuse between 2013 and 2019 – far fewer than among Britain’s Met Police!

Because the claims of an insoluble conflict of interests have not been answered, trans rights have been made a repository for many of the frustrations that have not yet found positive expression in class struggle and a socialist programme. In the absence of a clear idea of how to fight cuts and for women’s services, support, and rights, the dead-end claim that trans rights present a challenge to achieving these things has gained ground.

Translating ‘an injury to one is an injury to all’ into a programme and action is the basis of the organised working class. The capitalist class seeks division in order to weaken the working class’s ability to realise its potential power to change society, including with presenting bans and proscriptions on sections of our class as the solution to apparent conflicts of interest. Our movement defends the rights of minorities. But we do not accept that is the working class – or sections of our class – who make accommodations to meet the needs of minorities but the bosses and the capitalist class.

The British Social Attitudes survey indicates dramatically increased support over the past four decades for women with children going out to work. At the moment, the availability of affordable childcare is totally inadequate, and the huge cost of childcare required falls mostly on those workers and their families. The workers’ movement must take up the struggle for that ‘accommodation’ to be made by the bosses and their class, through the provision of free quality childcare in workplaces and communities.

Similarly, for example, when there is a demand for gender-neutral toilets, it is not women’s toilets or disabled toilets, or men’s toilets for that matter, that should be sacrificed. A fight is needed to demand public investment in provision for all. Socialists fight for solutions based on united struggle to meet all our needs where apparent conflicting interests arise.

This approach needs to be taken in every sphere. It requires not just funding, but democratic control by the working class over how services are run to address the different requirements, and democratic socialist planning.

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, originally published in November 2023