Sir Keir Starmer’s fortunes have changed so quickly in the wake of the Conservatives’ self-immolation that he is now making a virtue of drawbacks that once rendered him unelectable.
It was just over two months ago that the Labour leader was having to defend himself against accusations, from his own colleagues, of being boring and of failing to enthuse the public.
Today, riding high from his well-received address to his party conference in Liverpool and suddenly in command of a 33-point lead in the polls over Liz Truss’s Tories, he can do no wrong.
It’s time for Mr Boring, Starmer said in a television interview on Wednesday. People want “a serious politician, a serious prime minister” with a “careful, competent, confident plan to lead Britain through this crisis”.
And voters agree, with 44 per cent saying the Labour leader would make the best PM, compared with 15 per cent for Truss, according to YouGov.
But as Starmer sets Number 10 firmly in his sights and pivots Labour to likely electoral success, he has one major issue to put right: his woman problem.
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At least half of his potential voters are women who traditionally will have looked to Labour to safeguard their interests. But under Starmer’s leadership, they can be forgiven for feeling abandoned.
The groups claimed, with good reason, that women with dissenting views on gender identity were being silenced by the party.
Labour has struggled with its approach to gender politics as it tries to accommodate the demands of extremists in its ranks with the protection of women’s rights.
Labour supporter and author Joan Smith said, in an article on UnHerd, that “substantial numbers of women” who desperately want an end to Tory rule have been put off voting for Labour by its fixation with trans rights.
Last year, the MP for Canterbury, Rosie Duffield, who chairs the Women’s Parliamentary Labour Party, was forced to stay away from her party’s conference after threats from trans zealots.
Her crime was, as she put it, “knowing that only women have a cervix”, and insisting that people born male but self-identifying as female should not have access to single sex spaces, such as refuges for rape victims, changing rooms and prisons.
Although the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, intervened on her behalf, warning that elected representatives should be able to appear publicly without “fear of harm”, there was a shameful silence from her party leader.
The fact that Starmer seemed confused about female biology, claiming Duffield was wrong to say only women have a cervix, will have alarmed the majority of ordinary Labour voters who are not au fait with current cultural flashpoints.
His difficulty with basic science is shared by the women on his front bench. Earlier this year, Labour’s shadow minister for women and equalities, Anneliese Dodds, asked on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour for a definition of a woman, said: “It depends on the context.”
And Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary, refused three times, when challenged during an interview on Times Radio, to provide a definition of the word.
Not much has changed since 2019 when, in the Corbyn days, Labour women were forced to meet furtively at an unofficial fringe event at the party conference in Brighton to avoid intimidation by trans rights activists.
The women, part of Woman’s Place UK, said they had been subjected to a “persistent onslaught” by their fellow Labour Party members, and they accused Labour representatives and activists of “continuing to engage in intimidatory behaviour”.
What happened to solidarity from the party that once fought for equal pay for women and sex discrimination laws?
Recently, Starmer has shown signs he may have a backbone. He was prompt to call MP Rupa Huq’s comments about Kwasi Kwarteng being “superficially black” racist, and suspend her from the party.
And his handling of relations with deputy leader Angela Rayner has demonstrated growing political maturity since he froze her out as party chair last year. What was mutual antagonism appears to have morphed into mutual respect, however grudging, with Starmer recognising Raynor as an electoral asset rather than a liability.
But as leader, it is he who must steer the party through the treacherous waters of the transgender agenda.
Labour has pledged, if in government, to reform the Gender Recognition Act to allow transgender people to self-identify with a gender different to that of their birth.
Whether Starmer likes it or not, the fallout from this debate, and the erosion of women’s rights on his watch, will become an election issue and he will have to confront his female critics.
For now, though, the party which, unlike the Tories, Lib Dems, SNP, DUP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, has never elected a female leader, cannot even define what a woman is.
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