Photos: Scott Hunter, Number 10 Downing Street/CC, World Economic Forum/CC
Photos: Scott Hunter, Number 10 Downing Street/CC, World Economic Forum/CC

Sarah Sachs-Eldridge, Socialist Party Executive Committee

“Of all the weeks to say that, when Brianna’s mother is in this chamber. Shame.” This was Labour leader Keir Starmer’s response to an attempt at a cruel joke by Rishi Sunak about trans women during Prime Minister’s Questions. Trans teenager Brianna Ghey was 16 when she was murdered in February 2023.

Does this give grounds to hope for clear ‘rainbow’ water between a Starmer-led government and the Tories, bringing much-needed improvements for LGBTQ+ workers and young people?

LGBTQ+ workers and young people have experienced the failure of Starmer’s Labour to support their pay strikes, to oppose Tory attacks on the right to protest, their failure to express the basic solidarity of calling for a ceasefire and a permanent end to the occupation of Gaza, and the party’s retreat on Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity commitments, including scrapping tuition fees. Labour in power, in Wales and in councils, is not a voice for workers and youth, but a vehicle for Tory austerity and privatisation.

Sunak wasn’t wrong when he listed trans rights as one of Starmer’s many U-turns. In July 2023, Anneliese Dodds, the party’s chair and shadow equalities secretary, set out that Labour was retreating on its commitment to the right to self-identify, a key demand of trans and non-binary people.

However, it is inevitable there is hope that a Starmer-led government will represent an improvement on the disastrous situation over which the Tories have presided for 14 years. The previously widespread idea that we were on the road to LGBTQ+ liberation has been severely damaged by experience in the period since the 2008 world economic crisis – for which working-class, poor and young people have been paying since.

Tory hypocrisy

Since 2010, Tory-led governments have sought to use LGBTQ+ rights to gain support, while their attacks on living standards have driven an historic erosion of their party’s base and authority. For example, while implementing vicious austerity, the David Cameron-led coalition government introduced equal marriage in 2013, amid hypocritical talk of ‘compassionate conservatism’. In 2016, Theresa May, faced with the enormous popularity of Corbyn’s anti-austerity programme, sought to win some favour by announcing (but not achieving) more far-reaching reform of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act than Labour is today committed to.

In recent years, with their party crisis intensifying as the capitalist system they represent fails to even offer the next generation better living standards than their parents, a growing ultra-right section of the Tories has tried to use LGBTQ+ rights in the opposite way.

The ‘nasty party’ is attempting to whip up suspicion and division among workers, including anti-trans hatred. It is no coincidence that this takes place as Tory support plummets in the polls – and as the working class is back, striking, protesting, and increasingly seeing the need to get organised and fight the bosses and the politicians that represent their interests.

Divide and rule

Such divisive ideas are always a tool that capitalist politicians are prepared to use when a threat to their right to rule is posed. The working class shares collective experience of the exploitation at the heart of capitalism and has a shared interest in ending it. The role of the working class in producing society’s wealth means we have enormous potential power.

But throughout its existence, the capitalist class has sought to use all the differences between workers – race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, etc – to set us against each other. In other words, they have sought to use ‘divide and rule’ to prevent us realising our potential to take power and replace capitalism with democratic socialism, a society planned to meet the needs of all.

The 2022 Tory leadership election, in the midst of the cost-of-living crisis,  was dominated by the candidates’ attempts to outdo themselves on anti-trans rhetoric. Six cabinet ministers used their moment at the podium at the October 2023 Tory conference to attack trans rights. Others concentrated on ‘small boats’.

Open one of the right-wing billionaire-owned newspapers and you are likely to see a trans-hostile article that reinforces this division. There was a four-fold increase in press coverage between 2015 and 2020, according to the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Inevitably, this has had a horrendous impact. Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics in October reveal that hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation are up by 112% in the last five years, with a 186% rise when it comes to hate crimes against trans people. The Scottish teachers’ union EIS found that three quarters of primary school teachers hear homophobic language among students.

Tory right-wing divisive rhetoric is combined with Tory austerity to bring enormous suffering. Housing charity ‘akt’ estimates that as many as 24% of young homeless people are LGBTQ+, with the overwhelming majority facing homelessness as a result of being forced out of their family home after coming out or being outed. But their homelessness is caused by the absence of council homes. A Stonewall/YouGov report found that one in eight LGBT people have experienced unequal treatment in a healthcare setting and one in seven have avoided treatment because they are LGBT. The crisis in the NHS compounds the situation.

So there is a real need for improvement in the lives of LGBTQ+ people. But a Starmer-led government, while it may not use such intolerant rhetoric and may even pass some positive legislation, will not deliver the transformation in the situation that is needed to end oppression. However, in the run-up to the general election we will be invited to place our hope in Starmer’s Labour – or accept that it’s the only option available.

Illusions in Starmer

In 2021, veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell’s Reclaim Pride event received significant support from young LGBTQ+ people in London. It is a mistake that Peter has not built on this success, campaigning to build mass Pride events that demand rights and all the resources and public services needed, with which the Socialist Party LGBTQ+ members group offered to help.

However, a greater mistake was the illusions he sowed in Keir Starmer when he told Attitude magazine that: “There’s no doubt Starmer took a strong stand in response to Sunak’s trans jibe. It came from the heart. It felt sincere. And that’s what we need from a Labour leader to reassure the LGBTQ+ community and win their support.”

On his sincerity or otherwise, we cannot judge. However, Keir Starmer is fundamentally a pro-capitalist politician whose opposition to inequality will never embrace the socialist policies that are really required to tackle it. LGBTQ+ workers and young people need rights and public services and homes, and Labour cannot be relied on to provide any of that for any of us.

In his pledge to make Labour the “party of business,” Starmer said to business leaders: “If we do come into government, you will be coming into government with us.” It is not possible to represent the exploiters in the capitalist class at the same time as the exploited and oppressed working class. His choice is clear.

Conversion Therapy

Peter referred to Labour’s commitment to banning trans conversion therapy, under the pressure of campaigning. Described in a 2018 government equalities report as: “So-called conversion therapies, sometimes also referred to as cure, aversion or reparative therapies, are techniques intended to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” UN experts describe the practice as ‘torture’, yet 5% of people in a UK LGBT survey say they had been offered it. The figure was 10% for Christian respondents and 20% for Muslim respondents.

The Tories promised to ban the practice five years ago. But, on whether it is to their advantage to do so or not, the Tories cannot agree, as with many issues in their weakened and divided state, and therefore cannot act.

But given the ideas promoted in society by the right-wing press and politicians, such a ban is far from sufficient to counter the suffering of LGBTQ+ workers and youth. Young people need youth clubs where support is available, they need council homes, and mental health support, and the chance to go to college and university without having to rely on their parents.

Instead of public funding of a massively increased and improved mental health services, Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has made Labour’s commitment to continuing the role of private profiteers in the NHS clear. Lancet research from Oxford University shows every £10 million of NHS spending awarded to profit-seeking health companies could have led to three preventable deaths the following year – 557 preventable deaths between 2014-20.

It’s estimated that 231,000 deaths in England have been caused by savage cuts to all public services between 2010-18. Instead of destroying services and support for young people, Labour-led councils should fund them and demand that Starmer commits the next government to bail them out.

Schools guidance

One of the many ways the right-wing Tories are injecting their divisive poison into public services is with their plan to introduce guidance on ‘Gender Questioning Children’ into schools. It offers no guidance on supporting students, families and teachers regarding these sensitive issues. It offers no means of dealing with bullying or discrimination. Typical of capitalist politicians’ solutions, the emphasis is on proscriptions not resourcing support. It therefore invites tensions between teachers, school students, and parents to be increased – in the context of deep schools and mental health crises.

It is very far from clear that the Tories are capable of finalising this draft, under consultation until 12 March, before a general election takes place. As one senior Tory said following one Suella Braverman ‘dog-whistle’ speech: “This trash about gender ideology is making our Conservative Party look transphobic and homophobic. This is not what our Conservative Party is about.”

But what is clear is that it’s in Keir Starmer’s power to kill off the divisive guidance now. He could commit a future Labour government to repealing it and make it unworkable. Education unions, LGBTQ+ campaigns and students unions should put Labour under relentless pressure to commit to that.

However, it is not enough to simply repeal the legislation. Schools need full public funding and staffing. And they need a plan for action to confront LGBTQ+phobia and other reflections of divisive capitalist ideology in schools. How that is done cannot be left in the hands of capitalist politicians who have shown time and again that they cannot be trusted with our safety or our services. Schools need to be run in the interests of the communities they serve, which includes finding ways to overcome the division.

Like all our public services, it is necessary to fight for genuine democratic control. In schools, this would mean through elected representatives of the local community, parents, staff and their trade unions, and school students’ unions. Those kinds of committees would provide the forum for discussing and arriving at decisions on areas of controversy, feeding into national policy. That would need to include policies on relationships, sex and health education, as well as provision for students and staff of all faiths.

An essential demand is ending academisation, which represents a removal of elements of democratic control which exist for local authority-run schools. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour stood for an end to academies. In October’s national policy forum, Starmer has committed to “make multi-academy trusts subject to Ofsted inspections”!

What’s more, a Starmer government is going to be incredibly unstable. By attempting to stay within the limits of existing capitalism, it will come into collision with the demands of workers, LGBTQ+ people, women, all those suffering racism, anti-war protesters, young people, and more.

A workers’ voice

We need our own voice to fight for those demands! We need a new workers’ party that fights now for the rights of LGBTQ+ people and the whole of the working class, that is capable of drawing us together behind a programme that represents all our needs. The Socialist Party is fighting for every step towards building such a uniting force. That includes fighting for a workers’ list of candidates for the general election, involving the trade unions, anti-war movement, and MPs who Starmer has witch-hunted out of Labour.

Should such a list not come to pass, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the electoral coalition in which the Socialist Party participates, is offering its banner and platform for candidates. As a minimum commitment, voters should know that the TUSC general election platform includes, as well as support for trade unions and for nationalisation: “Full equality for LGBT people. Oppose transphobia, promote trans and non-binary rights. Support Gender Recognition Reform for all trans and non-binary people.”

The results of Reform UK in the recent by-elections show that, in the absence of a new workers’ party, the vacuum can be filled by right-wing forces that will apply pressure to a Starmer government. With the Tories likely to split after the general election, the ultra-right sections will be part of that process.

Part of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights is therefore the fight for workers to organise and fight in all our interests, including building a new mass workers’ party. To liberate humanity from the misery of capitalist crisis, including LGBTQ+ oppression, means fighting for socialism, a democratic socialist plan of production based on the interests all.