Woman's Place UK

Dear Lisa Nandy: a letter from Ruth Serwotka

Dear Lisa Nandy,

I write on behalf of the feminist campaigning organisation Woman’s Place UK (WPUK). Information about us can be found here.

I am a co-founder of WPUK, with Kiri Tunks and Judith Green. We are all socialist feminists with decades of experience in the Labour and trade union, and women’s movements. We have each spent a lifetime fighting for social justice.

On Thursday 13th February, you appeared on the Radio 4 Today programme. You were asked about your approach to transgender issues in relation to your bid for the leadership of the Labour Party.

A transcript of your interview can be found here: Lisa Nandy Transcript:Today:13.2.20

In the interview you made several false and damaging statements about us. You have also signed a statement with the scurrilous claim that we are “a transphobic hate organisation”.

You have no evidence to support such an accusation, as there is none. There cannot be, because it is not true. Yet you felt it was acceptable to make un-evidenced claims that we are “wilfully trying to go after trans people”, “causing real harm, causing harm with the words we use…”.

In fact, we are a women’s rights organisation committed, among other things, to upholding current sex discrimination and equality law as set out in the Equality Act (2010), including upholding protections for trans people.

Our most recent event, Women’s Liberation 2020, was a conference (organised in conjunction with University College London Women’s Liberation SIG) marking 50 years since the famous women’s liberation gathering at Ruskin in Oxford. Our conference attracted over 900 women (and some men) and was a signpost of a growing, rejuvenated women’s movement. Any party or politician setting its face against these developments – in real life – is making a big mistake.

You went on in your Radio 4 interview to conflate “causing harm” with “causing offence”. This should alarm everyone in the labour movement and beyond committed to free speech and debate. It is difficult to understand how a women’s rights organisation causes anyone in the Labour Party reasonable offence. And “being offended” cannot be the basis in law or party rules for expelling, proscribing or silencing others. We are deeply concerned that a candidate for leadership of the Labour Party does not seem to understand this and the damage it does to the case for action in genuine cases of discriminatory, abusive or harmful behaviour.

Our views are that current equality law must be protected, that the current sex exemptions in the Equality Act must be upheld, understood and enforced.

Is that “hateful”, “harmful” or “offensive” – or grounds for proscription?

This was also the position of the Labour Party manifesto, which we discussed with the Labour Party leadership team and which I welcomed on the Radio 4 Today programme at the time. It is for you to explain why you wish to depart from those protections for women and from the Manifesto commitments to women.

Also in your Radio 4 interview, you did not demur from the suggestion that I should be expelled from the Labour Party. Your answer to a direct question of whether I should be expelled was:

“We should exclude people from the Labour Party who are trying to do harm to other people…”

Are you saying that I am “trying to do harm to other people”?

I should like a categorical assurance from you that you are not saying that.

I hope you understand that expulsions of women from the Party on the grounds you are suggesting (and being cavalier about evidence) will provoke a huge backlash, as the #ExpelMe hashtag demonstrates. It will be fiercely opposed by all fair-minded members, who insist on reason and evidence.

That brings me to your campaign website links to a Pink News article that claims WPUK held a transphobic meeting in Oxford in April 2018. In fact, we held a women’s rights meeting in Oxford. It was the subject of a protest that was an unacceptable attempt at silencing and intimidation. Please see this link here for a record of all our meetings and to see the extent to which we have faced harassment and intimidation and even a bomb threat.

This is not acceptable protest.

It is incredible that your campaign to run a democratic political party can so uncritically link to abusive and untrue stories about us.

Can you point us to your defence of the right of women to self-organise and to freedom of assembly in your campaign platform?

Similarly, what are your commitments to women and to girls?

In our view, it is a notable trend among all candidates for the Labour leadership and, in fact, of all political parties that such commitments are few and far between. If anything is emblematic of how out of touch politicians are with working class people it is this disconnect between them and women’s lives.

Women have been the main victims of austerity; have been the main victims of deregulation of the workforce; have lost services and support structures; face a growing culture of sexual harassment and abuse; and face record and rising rates of violence and homicide (femicide). Too often politicians are answering questions about women with platitudes about the rights of another group. You simply do not see women. It is our intention to change this attitude in official politics. The Labour Party can join us in this endeavour… or not.

Given the furore that followed your comments, I hope it is not lost on you, or on any of the other leadership candidates, that your views are out of step with huge numbers of women in the Party. We are fed up with how remote so many of you are from our lives.

I hope it is clear that we will not accept being thrown as red meat to self-appointed groups, formed overnight in the recesses of the internet, whipped up by irresponsible media figures but in fact representing little in real life.

Has the real life general election result taught the Party nothing?

These groups and individuals appear to think they can police women’s actions, words and thoughts. They cannot and they will not – and neither will you or anyone else.

Yours sincerely,

Ruth Serwotka
On behalf of WPUK

PS: Given that I have asked for assurances from you, I have – in fairness – circulated this to all the other candidates seeking similar assurances from them.