Not so liberal, not so democratic: the Liberal Democrats and Women

On Radio 4 this morning, Luciana Berger was asked about gender identity, sex and women’s rights.  Here is a transcript of the interview:

BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Thursday 14 November 2019, 7.11am

Nick Robinson (NR) interview with Luciana Berger (LB)

NR: Let’s turn to equalities which is the subject of your launch today. One part of that is respecting you say the expression of gender identity. Can we be clear what that means? Is it the Liberal Democrats’ view that if I now declare that I identify as a woman, you want the law to treat me as a woman?

LB: Yes.

NR: Why? Why isn’t sex and biology a factor in that?

LB: Well there will be many people who will share with you their very personal experience of being born in…as one identity and actually identifying as another. And for anyone who has to go through that very, very difficult experience, they should be respected.

NR: And yet there are plenty of people who will say to you there is a conflict of rights here: the rights of trans people and the rights of women, hard fought over many decades. Rights, for example, to be sure that sex offenders can’t demand to be housed in a woman’s prison, rights to make sure there is privacy  in places where women undress. And they would say there’s no easy answer to this. It’s competing rights but why are the Liberal Democrats choosing to oppose women’s rights?

LB: I don’t think they are in competition. I think that there are some challenges that we have to work through but in the same way that we fought for equalities for sexuality, for people from different ethnic minority backgrounds…this is one of those equalities that we are working through and fighting for equality for as well and there shouldn’t be competition, there shouldn’t be a hierarchy of equalities. It’s a challenge but we’re working through it.

NR: You say it shouldn’t be a competition but there is.  I mean you will know the case. It’s been widely shared on social media of a woman who was a campaigner for women’s rights who wrote to the Liberal Democrats: ‘I’m very concerned about this’ and had a letter back from party headquarters saying: ‘Maybe we’re not the party for you’.

LB: I’m sorry that I don’t know the exact details of the case that you refer to. But again, we can…there’s often challenging cases that we have to work through. And the point is that this is one of the things where if we are serious as a country about achieving equality – equality for all – then this is one of those qualities and this is what we have to work through.

NR: Luciana Berger, thanks for joining us.

Luciana Berger isn’t alone in these views which represent the official position of the Liberal Democrats.

And it seems that different perspectives are not welcome in the Party. This week, a woman wrote to the Liberal Democrats to ask for their position on women’s rights and was astonished to receive a reply that suggested she would not be welcome in the Party.

Today I emailed the Lib Dems expressing an interest in joining their party.

I stated no one should receive discrimination or abuse for their transgender status but explained that I am GC and I asked if there was room for GC women in the party.

I received the following response:

Thank you for getting in touch. Whilst we appreciate your interest in joining, you should be aware that the Liberal Democrats are a trans inclusive party, and we have made it clear that we fully behind trans communities. As liberals we champion everyone’s right to live the life they want. By the sounds of your email it appears that your values are not aligned with ours so we are probably not the right the party for you.

In February 2019, Lynne Featherstone stated in Lib Dem Voice:

“I also have a message to those people who believe they can restrict trans women’s rights, deny their human rights, or exclude them from women-only spaces in the name of feminism: You are not feminists. Your views are not welcome in the Liberal Democrats.”

Equality and Human Rights

And today, the Liberal Democrats have shared their ‘Plan for Equalities and Human Rights’. Unfortunately, they misrepresent the legally protected characteristics in the statement, omitting ‘sex’ completely and substituting with gender.

The deletion of sex looks to be a calculated decision which is being challenged in other organisations by women up and down the country. Our own campaign to get councils to correctly list the characteristics continues to bear fruit.

But the Liberal Democrats also miss out the protected characteristics of marriage/civil partnership and maternity and pregnancy.

The omission of the latter is shocking given that 54,000 women lose our jobs every year due to pregnancy/maternity discrimination.

You’d think a political party keen to eradicate discrimination would want to address the entrenched misogyny and sexism likely to affect huge numbers of women in their lives.

We will be looking in detail at the specific proposals in the plan.

Spousal Veto

And in relation to marriage/civil partnership, the Liberal Democrats have also announced that they support the removal of spousal consent (“spousal veto”) which is currently required when one person in a marriage wishes to transition to a different “legal sex” and remain married. This provision means the spouse must give their consent for their marriage to continue before gender recognition is awarded.

Liz Barker subsequently tabled a private members’ bill to bring this into law which fell when this parliament ended. She was challenged vigorously by ‘trans widows’ and other women for supporting an action which would see them trapped in a legal partnership, now entirely altered. See our statement on spousal consent here.

The 9 protected characteristics (as outlined in the Equality Act 2010) are readily available on the EHRC and government websites. The Equality Act is not a buffet from which political parties or organisations can pick and choose. They have an obligation to uphold the rights of everyone.

This pick & mix approach to equality and human rights should be of huge concern to everyone.

The Liberal Democrats are absolutely committed to pursuing a change in the law on self-identification of gender as made clear by Jo Swinson this summer:

As a cis woman, I can’t pretend to understand the experience of questioning one’s own identity, nor do I face the same potential risks or dangers when I speak up about these issues. But that doesn’t take away my passionate belief that trans rights are human rights. I’m a feminist, and I hate hearing that I’m not allowed to believe both in women’s rights and the rights of trans women. Trans women ARE women.

The Liberal Democrats must continue to lead the campaign for self-identification. As Leader, I would champion trans, non-binary, genderfluid, and self-defined gender identities – making clear that there is no equality or liberty without defending the rights of everyone.

Trans people should be able to legally change their gender without the current medicalised hoops to jump through; their own experience should be enough.

She is supported in this by Layla Moran, Liberal Democrats Education spokesperson, who said in a parliamentary debate last year:

‘I believe that women are women, so if that person was a trans woman, I absolutely would. I just do not see the issue. As for whether they have a beard, which was one of the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments, I dare say that some women have beards. There are all sorts of reasons why our bodies react differently to hormones. There are many forms of the human body. I see someone in their soul and as a person. I do not really care whether they have a male body.’

These assertions rather pre-empt the outcome of the governmental consultation into reforming the Gender Recognition Act and suggest that the Liberal Democrats just don’t care what women think.

In fact, their record on women’s rights generally is rather shabby.

The Liberal Democrats are not alone in their poor response to women and women’s rights. It is evident in all political parties who are, at best, ignoring women’s concerns and, at worst, denouncing them.

But in policy they have gone further than most in trampling on women’s collective rights in favour of a libertarian free-for-all that benefits the powerful and men.

Their spring conference this year placed pimps and men buying sex on a par with women in prostitution. They refused to draw a distinction between a woman with a conviction for selling sex and a man with one for selling her.

Three years earlier Dennis Parsons, the chairman of Cheltenham Liberal Democrats , floated the idea of “sex work” being offered as a choice by careers advisors in schools.

The then Lib Dem leader distanced himself from the comments made at a special conference session. But where does the current leadership stand?

Stories of sexual harassment within the party itself are rife: see here, here and here.

Jo Swinson voted in favour of drastic and harmful cuts to public spending. She voted for the bedroom tax and the public sector pay cap; she voted to cut the Education Maintenance Allowance, disability benefit, general welfare and local authority funding. All things which have hit women, children and the vulnerable hardest.

See here for more on Jo Swinson’s voting record.

We are certain that there are supporters and members of the Liberal Democrats who do support women’s rights.

Given the recent SNP Women’s Pledge and the Labour Women’s Declaration, perhaps now is the time for such people to initiate a Liberal Democrat version.

These kinds of sexist and misogynistic positions seem to have afflicted all political parties who are, at best, ignoring women’s concerns and, at worst, denouncing them.

All political parties need to remember that women make up over 50% of the population; that we suffer persistent sexism and structural oppression;  but, crucially, that we have the vote.

Any party which can show it is listening to women and addressing our concerns may just get our attention.

14th November 2019




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