As requested by the UK Socialist Party, we are publshing articles and resposes in an ongoing debate between WPUK and The Socialist.
We welcome the willingness of the Socialist Party to engage in debate with us.
We look forward to finding other opportunities to progress this discussion.
The exchange is published in order of publication.
Britain: Labour Party and trans rights: united working-class fight needed for rights and resources for all The Socialist, 19/02/2020
The Labour Campaign for Trans Rights (LCTR) has intervened in the party’s leadership contest, calling on candidates to back its 12-point pledge. Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy have done so.
Women’s rights, trans rights and the labour movement The Socialist, 11/03/2020
The Socialist has been contacted by Women’s [sic] Place UK (WPUK) requesting a right of reply to the article by Sarah-Sachs Eldridge ‘Labour Party and trans rights: United working-class fight needed for rights and resources for all’, which was published in issue 1074.
Below we print WPUK’s contribution to the debate and a further reply by Sarah-Sachs Eldridge.
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge’s article, ‘Labour Party and trans rights: united working-class fight needed for rights and resources for all’ in the Socialist (issue 1077, 19 February) is to be welcomed, because it clearly rejects the demand for expulsions of Labour members who are active in, or support the views of, Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) and LGB Alliance.
Since WPUK was established we have been asking for a respectful debate inside the labour movement and wider society on the issues Sachs-Eldridge raises. For this we have faced a degree of harassment and abuse that is unprecedented in progressive politics.
Venues have been pressurised into cancelling bookings, our meetings have frequently been the target of angry, hostile demonstrations, and people who agree with us have been no-platformed – a tactic usually only applied against fascists.
However, we think that she gets many things wrong about the nature of WPUK.
WPUK opposes all forms of discrimination – and that includes discrimination against trans people. Our active members and supporters have long records as campaigners against all forms of prejudice.
It simply isn’t true that WPUK has nothing to say about class and austerity. Our recent conference was ignored by virtually the whole of the left, but it was attended by over 900 women who took part in discussions on sex and class, economics and feminism, racism, organising, violence against women and service provision.
A point on which we may differ with Sachs-Eldridge and comrades in the Socialist Party is that we believe it is essential for women to create their own spaces to discuss these issues. Women are disproportionately affected by austerity. It is women who are expected to provide the care that councils and central government withdraw, and it is right that they are able to draw up their own programme in discussions they control, rather than be submerged in the demands that are too often written by male-dominated groups and committees.
So, while many of us are active in a range of local and national campaigns against austerity, we make no apology for insisting that women’s voices are heard and our needs are met.
Anyone wanting a fuller understanding of what we are calling for should read our manifesto at womansplaceuk.org and make up their own minds. It clearly outlines concrete steps we believe need to be taken to address the political, economic, social and cultural oppression that women face. It’s unlikely to contain anything that supporters of the Socialist Party will disagree with.
Sachs-Eldridge says that we sow “illusions in the government’s ability to protect women’s spaces.” We think that it is entirely reasonable for campaigners to make demands on governments to offer legal protections to citizens. No one seriously believes that we shouldn’t demand that the government legislates to prevent racist violence.
In fact, it is only the activity of the anti-racist and women’s movements over many decades that has given us the existing legal protections we enjoy. We consider these as victories to be defended and extended rather than sowing illusions.
Our ambition is for clear definitions of sex and gender which aren’t based on sexist and limiting stereotypes. Yes, we do think that a change to self-identification is a challenge to the rights of women and girls as well as other people who have protected characteristics under the Equalities Act, including trans people.
WPUK will be organising more events in the coming months. We would welcome any readers of the Socialist to come along with an open mind and take part in a comradely discussion.
Judith Green, Ruth Serwotka, Kiri Tunks, co-founders, WPUK
The Socialist Party’s response
The Socialist Party welcomes this exchange with trade union and Labour Party members who lead Women’s Place UK (WPUK). The fight against oppression is a central question for the entire labour movement.
We hope that this debate about programme, ideas, organisation and methods of struggle will be discussed across the trade union and labour movement, without threats of bans or exclusions, in order to aid the fight against oppression in all its forms.
Opposition to all discrimination and oppression is the starting point for the Socialist Party. In its letter, WPUK says it “opposes all forms of discrimination” including “against trans people”.
But later it says that “a change to self-identification [of trans people] is a challenge to the rights of women and girls”. Such a position is not consistent with opposition to all discrimination. Nor does it take the fight for the rights of women and girls forward.
The working class, because of the economic exploitation it faces, and the role it plays in the production process under capitalism, has a collective interest in ending capitalism – which is the root cause of exploitation and oppression – and has the collective power to do so.
The capitalist class, therefore, attempts to divide the working class along gender, race, religious and sexual orientation lines in order to make it easier to maintain its rule.
Unfortunately, by opposing the right to self-identification for trans people, WPUK is falling into the capitalist trap of dividing and pitting oppressed groups against each other.
The role of the trade union and labour movement is not as an arbiter of limited rights and resources, but as a mass force fighting for the full rights and needs of all workers.
This means fighting for an end to austerity, and for full public funding for services such as domestic violence refuges; ensuring, alongside the staff that run them, that these are safe spaces with adequate screening processes, sufficient trained staff and specialisation to meet different needs.
This would lay the basis for meeting the needs of all groups of service users, and democratically negotiating and resolving any potential conflicts.
The Socialist Party supports the self-organisation of specially oppressed groups.
But we are opposed to any attempts to rigidly and permanently separate the working class along the lines of gender, sexuality or ethnicity, etc, or organisational forms that undermine the ability of the working class to struggle, including for the rights of minorities and all oppressed groups under capitalism.
Separate organisations can be a bridge to greater workers’ unity, but that is dependent on the leadership, make-up and programme of those organisations.
The WPUK letter states that “it is only the activity of the anti-racist and women’s movements over many decades that has given us the existing legal protections we enjoy”.
This completely ignores the role of the organised working class, such as the strike by women workers at Ford Dagenham in 1968, and the key effect it had in winning the Equal Pay Act. In fact, this forms part of the basis of the 2010 Equality Act.
These laws, however, are not sufficient to end oppression and discrimination as the continuation of the gender pay gap demonstrates.
As the WPUK letter states, there are many demands in the WPUK manifesto that we could support. But to “address the political, economic, social and cultural oppression of women”, it needs to show how women can win. The WPUK manifesto does not mention trade union struggle or the need to fight for a socialist alternative to the capitalism system.
The manifesto calls for “sustainable investment from national government” for support services for women and girls who are victims of violence. But how will this be achieved?
The Socialist Party calls on Labour councils to set no-cuts budgets to save domestic violence services and all the services women rely on, and to fight for the money that the Tories have stolen from local authorities in a decade of austerity.
The manifesto says: “Take action to achieve equal pay, such as compulsory equal pay audits, the collection of sex disaggregated data and better enforcement of the Equality Act 2010.”
Data is important, and we oppose cuts to its collection, but it was mass-organised strike action by low-paid women workers in Glasgow that won them the half a billion pounds in equal pay owed to them by the council. That their strike inspired solidarity action by the mostly male refuse workforce was recognised as significant by all involved.
Women are at the sharp end of austerity. It’s a fact. What we can’t agree on is that women can more effectively fight austerity alone. The UCU union is organising strikes at the moment, and their four demands include ending unequal pay. That strike would obviously be less effective if only the women members took action.
The road of exclusivity in campaigning weakens rather than strengthens women’s potential to fight their oppression.
The WPUK says its ambition is “clear definitions of sex and gender which aren’t based on sexist and limiting stereotypes”.
But the ideas that are dominant within capitalism, including gender stereotypes and sexism, cannot be overcome without building a mass workers’ movement and organisations to transform society in a socialist direction. In that way, the basis for eliminating all forms of oppression would be laid.
Our ambition is a world free of class exploitation and inequality, where a democratic socialist planned economy is able to meet the needs of all, not just the few.
Freedom of identity is a right that must be defended – but not one that can be fully realised within the confines of unequal capitalism.
The conclusion the trade union movement must draw is the need to build a movement of the working class to defend every right, service and job – and to change society.
That means drawing in all sections of the working class through a programme for action that shows that all those oppressed and exploited in this system will benefit from, and are needed, in that struggle.
Sarah-Sachs Eldridge, Socialist Party executive committee
The fight for LGBTQ+ equality must be part of the struggle to liberate society from capitalism The Socialist, 15/12/21
In recent months, the LGBTQ+ rights organisation Stonewall has faced increasing attacks. For example, BBC Sounds produced a ten-episode podcast investigation into Stonewall’s lobbying and influence, primarily to attack trans and non-binary rights, including the right to self-identify.
Organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Ofcom and the BBC have decided to exit Stonewall diversity schemes to which they had previously subscribed. They say that being part of these programmes damages perceptions of their impartiality or was not “good value for money.”
The BBC director general Tim Davie (a former Tory party council candidate) argued that the treatment of trans people in society was an “impartiality topic” in the eyes of the BBC, unlike gay rights or climate change.
Stonewall has been targeted as part of a sustained campaign by right-wing journalists and politicians, with mistaken support from some in the women’s and labour movement, to present trans and non-binary people’s rights as conflicting with women’s rights.
The real conflict is between the need to end oppression, austerity and discrimination on the one side, and a capitalist system in crisis and unable to provide a decent standard of living for the overwhelming majority of society on the other. The recent World Inequality Report found that since 1995, the richest 1% took 38% of all additional wealth, whereas the bottom 50% captured just 2% of it.
The working class, because of the economic exploitation it faces, and the role it plays in production under capitalism, has a collective interest in ending the system which is the root cause of exploitation and oppression, and it has the collective power to do so.
The capitalist class, fearful of possible challenge to its rule, has an interest in dividing workers along lines of gender, race, religious and sexual orientation.
Stonewall does not aspire to unite the working class in struggle, but is nevertheless victimised by the whipping up of division, being picked on as a warning against standing up for oppressed sections of society.
Stonewall was founded in 1989 on the back of the mass campaigns against ‘Section 28’ legislation introduced by the Thatcher government as part of (and as a divisive distraction from) attacks on council services and budgets.
Section 28 banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. Fighting against it, tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ people, trade unions and supporters took to the streets, with new forces taking up the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Stonewall merely advocated patient lobbying of political parties, big businesses and the establishment, to make changes to law and policy over time.
As a result of the anti-Section 28 movement giving LGBTQ+ people an increased confidence there was an improvement in their position in the post-Thatcher era, and legal gains were made.
Stonewall continued to push for reforms to LGBTQ+ rights via court cases, reforms to the law, such as the repeal of Section 28, equalisation of the age of consent and introduction of civil partnerships; and, in the absence of a mass workers’ party, was able to present itself as a key organisation.
It launched a ‘Diversity Champions’ scheme for government bodies and businesses to join for a fee, to be listed as ‘Proud Employers’, and receive Stonewall’s advice and guidance on policies for LGBTQ+ staff in the workplace.
However, capitalism will always use division as a tactic. New Labour abolished Section 28 without replacing it with positive measures to address the impact of LGBTQ+ phobia on students and education workers.
While the legal reforms have undoubtedly been positive for the LGBTQ+ community these did not happen solely because of Stonewall or the kindness of politicians it lobbied. Indeed, radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and campaigners taking on the AIDS crisis had demands on the age of consent and marriage equality in the 1970s and 1980s. As with the history of workers’ rights, the history of LGBTQ+ rights are a history of struggle to secure and extend rights.
In many ways, Stonewall has served as a pressure valve for the LGBTQ+ community, diverting the community towards ‘respectable’ lobbying, away from the activism of the fight against Section 28, which included abseiling into parliament, storming news broadcasts and taking to the streets in mass demos.
Stonewall operates without democratic structures. Its leaders decide what Stonewall does, to the point that it didn’t campaign on, or often even mention, trans rights until 2015 when growing pressure forced them to take up the issue.
So why the attacks on Stonewall now? These attacks are focused on Stonewall’s position on trans rights and legal reforms such as the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).
However, they must also be seen in the wider context of over a decade of austerity.
The Tories have used LGBTQ+ rights in an attempt to paint themselves as something other than the ‘nasty party’ tainted by the legacy of Section 28. They held garden parties to celebrate the Stonewall Riots, with Stonewall happily in attendance.
Tory party attacks
As the Socialist Party predicted, the Tories proved to be untrustworthy, carrying out GRA reform consultation in a divisive way, helping to whip up the attacks Stonewall is now facing, and not introducing any actual reforms.
Austerity itself has played a role. After more than a decade of cuts, services are past breaking point. By 2017, around 200 domestic violence victims were turned away from support each day.
Without a labour movement organising united working-class opposition to these attacks, the Tories have sought to use division as a distraction from austerity, targeting trans people, who are in no way to blame for the lack of women’s services. That blame lies with the Tory governments and Labour councils that dutifully pass on Tory cuts.
In this context, Stonewall, and the LGBTQ+ people more broadly, have been targeted for ‘going too far’ in fighting for trans rights. But, unfortunately, fighting is not what Stonewall has been doing. Even this year, Stonewall’s chief executive Nancy Kelley attended the Tory party conference and Carrie Johnson spoke at their fringe event.
Stonewall’s appeals to employers’ morals cannot do what trade unions can achieve in the workplace by bringing workers together to fight the bosses, be that over ‘fire and re-hire’ or discrimination. Look at the UCU higher education union’s current dispute which brings workers together to fight low pay, attacks on pensions, and discrimination on race and gender lines.
We need a fighting movement, bringing together the LGBTQ+ community with other oppressed groups and the wider working class. This can cut across the division capitalism promotes in order to make exploitation easier.
Only by removing the grip of capitalism and fighting for the socialist transformation of society can we bring an end to divide and rule and discrimination and win true liberation for LGBTQ+ and all working-class people.
Michael Johnson, LGBTQ+ socialist Party caucus convenor
Does the fight for Trans rights conflict with women’s rights? The Socialist, 9/02/22
For those who follow this discussion, that will be understood as a reference to Woman’s Place UK (WPUK).
Anyone familiar with our organisation knows that all our main activists are longstanding feminists. Many are actively involved in their unions; others work with women and girls affected by male violence and sexual abuse and several of us are proud of the solidarity work we’ve done with the people of Palestine. This may be why MI5 have never bragged about us naming them as employer of the year, an honour awarded to them by Stonewall.
We are a grassroots activist organisation which relies entirely on the voluntary, unpaid labour of women who hold down full-time jobs on top of our family and caring commitments. We don’t get money from big business and the HR departments of major employers.
As Johnson could have found out by looking at our Mythbusters, WPUK opposes all unlawful discrimination against trans people, and we believe that the right to gender non-conformity including in dress codes and behavioural expectations should be upheld in law, for men and for women. We work closely with trans people who share our views, and we have provided a platform for transsexual people who also believe that a woman’s biological sex is something that she is born with.
Our principal concern is that women have a say in the decisions that affect our lives. What we find shocking is how little support women who speak out get from the left. Our meetings are routinely harassed by aggressive protestors, and women like Dr Kathleen Stock are forced out of their jobs. This harassment appears to have the tacit support of a left which appears to be more troubled by women asking legitimate questions about a major, well-funded, corporate NGO, than it is by the harassment of women.
We look forward to the left engaging properly with the concerns being raised by many women, and request that you publish this letter as response to the article.
Kiri Tunks and Judith Green, co-founders, WPUK
United struggle for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights is integral to the wider struggle to change society The Socialist, 9/2/22
Michael Johnson replies
We welcome the opportunity to further address these important issues – with the view of sharpening our understanding and the programme for which we fight. As this and our previous exchanges illustrate, the anti-democratic approach that Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) accuses ‘the left’ of cannot be levelled at the Socialist Party.
Obviously, the Socialist Party agrees that women should have a say in decisions that affect their lives – but for us that starts with a fight against the austerity that denies women and all working-class people the opportunity to genuinely make decisions.
The 2020 Women’s Aid report on services for people escaping domestic abuse showed that 64% of those seeking access were turned away due to lack of funding. Across the country domestic violence and rape crisis services have been slashed by the government and local councils, including Labour councils, who have dutifully passed on the cuts.
Attacks on benefits, lack of council housing, closures of sexual health services, and other cuts also make it harder to escape violence and abuse, and make life ‘decisions’. Cuts to street-lighting and bus routes contribute to women workers’ vulnerability to violence.
The Socialist Party has a proud record of fighting austerity attacks on services women need. We are currently doing this by fighting for the biggest possible no-cuts challenge in the local government elections on 5 May. We appeal to trade unionists of all genders to stand in order to give a voice to the working class by putting forward an alternative to all these attacks.
We also have a proud record of fighting for LGBTQ+ rights, including opposing the corporatisation of the campaign for LGBTQ+ equality.
It is, however, not enough to limit ourselves to opposing the discrimination that the capitalist class, the main authors of the laws, consider ‘unlawful’.
If that was the case we would not have been able to oppose rape within marriage until 1991! Trade unionism has never limited itself to working within laws set by the boss class.
These struggles against sexism and LGBTQ+phobia, and the struggles of the wider working class, are intrinsically linked to the fight for a change in society.
Our approach, fighting for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle around a programme for the liberation of all from the oppression and exploitation of capitalism, makes us effective.
It meant we could defeat Thatcher both in Liverpool city council and the poll tax, win rights for women in the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, stop evictions, and more. This is why the Socialist Party not only doesn’t have MI5 bragging about us, but was infiltrated by ‘spy cops’.
Unfortunately, WPUK has taken a different tactic. While in our initial article we didn’t specifically reference WPUK, it is correct that we oppose divisive politics that threaten the working class’s ability to fight back.
WPUK present the idea that sections of the working class, in this case trans people, are a threat to women’s services. This is the lie the bosses would love us to swallow: blame each other, not their class society – with the sexism inherent to it, and their cuts.
The argument that there are limited resources and rights in society can lead to the idea that if one group benefits, another will lose out. This means that the working class must fight over crumbs.
Unfortunately, WPUK is not alone in this approach. Where workers have been pitted against each other or struggle quashed because “some cuts have to be made”, too often right-wing trade union leaders have gone along with this.
The Socialist Party completely rejects this strategy for the blind alley it is. Democratically planning the running of society would allow us to meet everyone’s needs instead of lining the pockets of the rich.
And if we are going to get those resources to where they need to be, it will take more than women, trans people or other sections of the working class fighting, but us all coming together as a class with a banner of fighting for rights and resources for all.
Michael Johnson, LGBTQ+ socialist Party caucus convenor
This has been published on our website.
We have asked the Socialist to publish it too.
We will link here if and when they do.
We think that Michael Johnson’s reply to Woman’s Place UK (United struggle for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights) is integral to the wider struggle to change society clarifies two fundamental, and perhaps irreconcilable, differences in approach between us and the Socialist Party.
Every major advance in women’s rights – from suffrage, access to abortion and a legal entitlement to equal pay – has been won not because women waited “for the maximum unity of the working class in struggle”. They happened because women identified the problem, organised and struggled without waiting for male union bureaucrats or politicians to decide that the time was right and maximum unity (whatever that might mean) had been achieved. These things were often done despite opposition from some working-class men.
There are direct comparisons to be made with lesbians, gay men and black people. These minorities often faced immense hostility from bigots and racists inside the working class and if they’d waited for “maximum unity” they’d still be waiting. They organised and fought, changing both laws and social attitudes through their struggles.
That’s an essential difference between our way of doing politics and what Michael Johnson is advocating. Women are an oppressed sex and we need to organise as a sex, rather than waiting for small vanguard parties, MPs, union leaders or “maximum unity”. If it’s divisive to challenge people who want to erode women’s rights then we are divisive. We think of it as enabling women to confront political parties like Labour which can’t even say what a woman actually is.
It is now clear that our other fundamental disagreement is over the definition of “woman”.
We think that women and girls are female people. In sexist societies, all women and girls are oppressed, from birth, on the basis of our sex. Gender has a variety of current definitions but in materialist thinking has referred to the social norms overlaid on sex, which restrict everyone and particularly disadvantage women. In any case, sex and gender are clearly different things.
At the same time we maintain that everyone should be free to present in whatever socially constructed gender role they choose. All our activists have rebelled against society’s expectation of what it is to be a girl or woman. If biological males want to behave in a way which actively rejects typical ideas of masculinity, then we fully support them. We just don’t think that makes them women, despite what Starmer or the Socialist Party say.
As a group which prides itself on its close links to the working class, we’d like to think that the Socialist Party also contains many members who have no problem defining ‘woman’ and we encourage them to raise the issue in their discussion. Most working-class people don’t find it a complicated thing to explain.
We won’t rise to the absurd claim that we think “some cuts have to be made”. Our core activists work every day in jobs where they see the effects of austerity on working class girls and women.
That might be a third difference between our approaches. We don’t deal in caricatures of our opponents’ positions.
Judith Green and Kiri Tunks, co-founders, WPUK