No party deserves the feminist vote in the UK election

Amid the culture war on gender, those of us who prioritise women’s rights and safety are left without a political home.

(COMBO) In this combination of file pictures created in London on May 29, 2024, Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) laughs during the Ceremonial Welcome for South Africa's President, on Horse Guards Parade in London on November 22, 2022, and Britain's main opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (R) reacts as he sits in the conference hall for the the debate on the leadership election rules changes, on the second day of the annual Labour Party conference in Brighton on the south coast of England, on September 26, 2021. Britain's Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party, Rishi Sunak and Labour opposition leader Keir Starmer will go head-to-head on June 4, 2024 in the first televised debate of the election campaign. (Photo by Justin TALLIS and Kirsty WIGGLESWORTH / various sources / AFP)
The Conservative record on issues relating to women is objectively abysmal, but Labour does not have a pristine record on women's rights either, writes Bindel [Justin Tallis and Kirsty Wigglesworth/AFP]

For feminists, particularly those of us campaigning to end male violence and secure women’s rights to single-sex spaces and services, the forthcoming UK general election is a minefield.

The vast majority of women’s rights activists in this country sit somewhere on the political left, including me. We believe that the only way to tackle inequality is to understand the structures that allow inequality to flourish – such as patriarchy, capitalism, and the intersection between the two. Feminists understand that in order to secure women’s rights in a sustainable manner, we must get to the root cause of the problem: structural oppression.

Therefore, we are more likely to vote Labour – a party grown out of the trade union movement and built on the promise to oppose oppression – than Conservative.

As a feminist, I believe for all women to be liberated it is necessary to end systemic inequalities that continue to shape every facet of our society. As such, I can never get myself to vote for the Conservative Party, which openly works to further entrench inequalities and injustices in British society.

Further, the Conservative record on issues relating to women’s rights and needs is objectively abysmal. During their long stints in power, Tories have consistently failed to adequately fund services for women escaping violent relationships, ignoring the plight of women at the very bottom of the barrel. They also all but destroyed the criminal justice system, ensuring most perpetrators of violence against women and girls never even see the inside of a courtroom. Tory support for women’s rights has always focussed solely on breaking the “glass ceiling”, which affects only about 5 percent of women who are already the most privileged.

The Conservatives have also failed to successfully navigate the widespread confusion about sex and transgender identity and counter its profound effect on women’s rights and safety in the past few years. Under their leadership, many women, and men, were forced to endure court cases and employment tribunals for merely stating that biological sex is real and refusing to bend the knee to gender ideology. It is abhorrent to me that a legal battle had to be fought to establish that stating a plain fact – that there are only two sexes – is acceptable in Britain.

Over the years, the Conservative Party had two female leaders and numerous female ministers, but it never treated women’s rights and concerns as a priority.  This is why most people in Britain view Labour as the party that cares most about women, despite its failure to elect a female leader in its more-than-a-century-long history.

Labour, however, does not have a pristine record on women’s rights either.
As the main opposition, it has let women down badly by capitulating to those denying the biological reality of sex and pushing gender ideology on British society at the expense of women’s rights. It did not resist, in any meaningful way, the ideological capture of British institutions and paid little attention to the relentless harassment endured by women who did. In fact, the party did not even take action to protect one of its own MPs, Rosie Duffield, as she faced threats and abuse for daring to speak up for the rights of women.

The Scottish Labour manifesto shows just how far down the rabbit hole the party has gone in confusing sex with gender and refusing to accept the dangers inherent to doing so.

It pledges to both implement the recommendations of the landmark Cass Review – which found “no good evidence on the long-term outcomes of interventions to manage gender-related distress” – and deliver a “full trans-inclusive ban on conversion practices” and “modernise, simplify, [and] reform the intrusive and outdated” Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to provide “dignity for transgender people’”. Not only are these pledges incompatible with one another, but there is no mention of the effect these policies would have on women’s rights.

The manifesto pledges to tackle male violence against women and girls. It fails to acknowledge, however, that this would prove impossible if domestic violence refuges, rape crisis centres, hospital wards and women’s prisons are due to open their doors to any men who happen to “identify” as a woman. Currently, the law on this particular issue is unclear – partly because Stonewall has managed to convince so many institutions that “gender identity” is a protected characteristic within the Equality Act – it is not. But if Scottish Labour gets its way, and reforms GRA to make sure it is not “intrusive and outdated”, it will likely be impossible for women’s single-sex spaces to remain single-sex.

The Green Party’s position on this issue is even more extreme than Labour’s. It says it wants to introduce a “self-ID” system that would allow people to change their legal sex without a medical diagnosis, but makes no mention of how this would affect women.

The Liberal Democrats also appear to be committed to making it easier for men to get government-issued certificates declaring that they are women. They say, given the power, they would also grant legal recognition to so-called “non-binary” identities. Since all existing legal provisions for the protection of women’s rights rely on recognising that everyone is either male or female, this would put them at risk.

Despite their horrible track record on women’s rights, in this election, the Conservative Party appears to be the only party with a manifesto that includes a sensible plan for addressing issues relating to sex and gender. The Conservative manifesto recognises the crucial distinction between biological sex and gender identity and steps back from an earlier pledge to ban “conversion therapy” which would have led to a ban on evidence-based, ethical talking therapy offered to gender-questioning people. The manifesto also explains that in light of the conclusions of the Cass Review, if re-elected, Conservatives would “take more time before reaching a final judgement on additional legislation in this area”.

It is remarkable that the Conservative Party, which has a long track record of harming women’s rights and looking down on feminists, appears to be the only one truly supporting the Cass Review and taking seriously the feminist objections to gender ideology.

The Conservatives are able to present themselves as the party that stands up for women’s rights in this election simply because Labour – unable to satisfy its own activists on either side of the debate – chose to simply turn a blind eye to female concerns about gender ideology.

It needs to be remembered, however, that it was the Conservative Party that brought this gender identity craze to the mainstream in the first place.

In 2016, Conservative Women and Equalities Minister Maria Miller led an inquiry into transgender equality that strongly recommended that the UK legally adopt principles of gender self-declaration, which would allow any individual to decide whether they would be considered male or female according to their own “gender identity”. The adoption of any such law would have made biological sex irrelevant in law, and open women’s single-sex spaces to men.

This was the beginning of the so-called “culture war” on gender in the UK. For feminists, it quickly became a matter of clinging to the sex-based rights we had long fought for.

Today, Tories who started this “war” with the Miller inquiry are pretending to be on our side – not because they truly care for women’s rights, but because it is politically convenient and because they dislike trans people as much as they have always disliked lesbians and gay men. Their newfound interest in protecting women’s sex-based rights and supporting feminists is a simple case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. They are not truly on our side.

So how, as a feminist, will I vote in this election? If I don’t spoil my ballot, which I am sorely tempted to do, it will have to be Labour. But if I do that, I’m going to commit to fighting the party from within to bring about real, lasting, and radical change so that for the first time in its history, women’s rights are afforded proper priority.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.