Why were transgender people’s rights up for debate in the Conservative leadership contest?

Last week, the various hopefuls for the position of Conservative Party leader (thus the UK’s next prime minister) met for a prime-time debate on Channel 4. 

They were asked about transgender people’s rights, specifically Penny Mordaunt’s former support of amending the Gender Recognition Act to allow self-declaration (in which you can declare your gender on a form, rather than undergoing a lengthy legal process to ‘prove’ your gender). Despite Mordaunt’s claims otherwise (and her stance that trans women should not compete with ‘biological women’ in sport) she was still criticised, both by the other candidates, and on two Sunday newspaper front pages. 

Mordaunt has since exited the leadership race, coming third overall. Many have suggested that her defeat is evidence of her U-turn on supporting transgender people’s rights being a mistake; however, it’s also likely that the attacks on her for initially seeming supportive were effective in muting her support, as her record on “self-ID” was something consistently used against her throughout the campaign. 

This begs the question: why did such a technical and relatively obscure issue – such as the legal status of gender recognition for transgender people – become one of the key issues in this campaign, potentially proving fatal in the case of Mourdant’s leadership bid? Especially when it affects so few people and we’ve got other things to deal with, like the cost of living crisis and a record-breaking heatwave? Why were transgender people – once again – used as a political football?

To a large extent, the ‘culture war’ over trans rights and their supposed clash with women’s rights is a manufactured one. Despite the candidates and newspapers framing this as a popular outrage, it simply isn’t: focus groups have repeatedly failed to mention transgender people’s rights as a priority, and only 2% of voters in a More in Common Public First poll in April listed it as one of their top three issues facing the country, compared to 64% listing the cost-of-living crisis. 

That’s not a shock: your household bills are always going to be far more important than scare stories about a minority group making up a fraction of the population.

‘Culture wars’ have become common across politics on both sides of the Atlantic, though they are comparable to the moral panics of the ‘80s and ’90s. The purpose is the same: to whip up a kind of popular hysteria to shore up political support among their base and distract from other issues. 

Mordaunt’s debate segue from discussing gender recognition in law to defending women’s sports demonstrates this isn’t about debating the technicalities of the situation, but collating various emotive topics to muddy the waters and make matters seem more critical than they are, to create an ‘us vs them’ scenario where the constant focus is on what ‘they’ are trying to ‘make us do’, whereby she (and the other candidates) can depict themselves as defenders against this. 

It’s red meat to the perceived red wall voter. But if most voters don’t care – who is this message for?

Partially, this is an attempt to make people care. If this is what the candidates are debating, this is what they must be judged on, and thus it must be important. But there is also a specific audience in mind. The Tory leadership contest is a championship of right-wing reactionary populism within a party already saturated in it, and transphobia fits the bill perfectly in the same way as ‘clamping down on immigration’. The more radical elements within the party are those often given the biggest platforms, and those whose votes are considered the most important: nobody wants to seem too leftist in such an environment.


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