No, Culture Warring Won't Save the Tories
The Conservative Party risks learning all the wrong lessons from the fall of Sturgeon
The Prime Minister has written in the Express this morning:
“Today I am pledging my support to Miriam Cates MP and Rosie Duffield MP’s call to protect women’s rights and ensure the dignity of women and girls by preserving single-sex spaces such as women’s refuges and rape crisis centres.”
“And when it comes to women’s spaces, women’s prisons, changing rooms, sports, and health, I believe that biological sex really matters. I know what a woman is – and I’ll protect women’s rights and women’s spaces.
That’s why I am supporting the Express’s campaign today.”
The move is a significant moment. The decision to lean in to the Cates/Duffield campaign represents a clear and calculated decision from Downing Street to wade in to this toxic debate. It’s beginning to look like Number 10 are following the strategy touted by Lee Anderson - the new Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party who said in January that the winning formula for his party at the next election would be “a mix of culture wars and trans debate”.
Sunak is dangerously close to appearing to think there is electoral milage in fanning the flames of the online culture war over transgender rights. In calling into question the rights that transgender people have had for years.
It is worth asking the question how far does the Prime Minister’s new stated position on changing rooms, prisons, or sports really goes:
Has he changed his previous view that it's up to individual sporting bodies to set their own rules?
Should competitive pistol shooting have the same level of trans-exclusion as weightlifting or boxing? Should E-sports?
Does he think a petite trans woman convicted of a white collar crime like tax fraud be sent to a men's prison?
How are we going to begin policing changing rooms? Will Britain institute some kind of chromosomal inspection regime?
I happen to think it’s more likely we won’t see genuine policy change in these areas. Competitive sports will rightly continue to decide their own rules. Prisons will press ahead with their new beefed up system of individual assessment. And no one is going to force Primark to carry out blood tests in order to use their changing rooms.
The Tories are however at risk of raising prospect of these peculiar things, and the temperature in this conversation. And that’s a big own goal.
On the eve of a set of local elections where people are hugely concerned about the cost of living, the NHS, potholes, and bin collection - Rishi Sunak has signed up to a campaign led by two MPs calling on the electorate to vote in these local elections based on transgender issues. Yes, really. And just like that, the Tories are beginning to falling into the same trap that Nicola Sturgeon did.
Yes, that’s right. Precisely the same trap that helped expedite Sturgeon’s downfall. (Just without so much accused internal party financial mismanagement).
Let me explain.
When Nicola Sturgeon announced her resignation in March, Unionists cheered. A formidable force in separatist politics had been brought down by a cocktail of fatigue, party troubles, and policy missteps - a series of real crises from the NHS to the cost of living, all drowned out by a confusing row over Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform.
Indeed a poll published the week she stood down saw raw support for her pro-partition cause crash to just 37% - with a 12 point lead for the Union. It is worth remembering that this poll came long before the SNP arrests. Before the public meltdown over party finances. Indeed, it seems clear to me that Sturgeon’s muddle over gender reform helped shift the mood of the country. The mood behind that poll.
The Tories were cock-a-hoop. The decision to deploy a controversial Section 35 order to strike down the Scottish Parliament’s reform of the GRA had been decried by many pundits at the time as a misstep, as a boon to the nationalist cause, and a “gift” to Nicola Sturgeon. Yet it is fair to say that the decision to strike down the Scottish Parliament’s legislation has (in the short term at least) proven to be a canny political move - and one Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is not opposing in Westminster, despite voting for GRA reform in Holyrood.
This being said, it appears there has not been a lot of soul searching as to why the Section 35 order has (thus far) played into the hands of Unionism. Indeed, those around Sunak appear to taking precisely the wrong lessons from this case.
And signing up to the Cates/Duffield campaign is not a repudiation of the row that helped topple Sturgeon, but an emulation of it.
There is scant evidence to suggest that Sturgeon was turfed out by a wave of ‘Gender Critical’ public opinion sweeping Scotland. To the extent that she was undermined by the GRA reform row, it was that her government appeared out of touch with ordinary people’s priorities at such a critical time, and indeed out of its depth.
As I have written before in this newsletter, most Brits don’t really care about gender issues. Not in a nasty way, just most people do not spend their lives thinking about the merits or otherwise of trans rights. And when they do, the instinctive starting point is compassion and a ‘live and let live’ approach. Crucially the public do not see transgender issues as particularly high up their priority ranking.
And so at a time of an NHS crisis in Scotland, ongoing education woes, cost of living worries at the top of people’s concerns - the SNP appeared to be using parliamentary time on two things most people did not see as a priority: another referendum and some complicated sounding gender related legislation no one seemed to understand.
Scotland Secretary Alister Jack’s plan to kibosh the Scottish legislation was not a stroke of genius because this country is somehow stuffed to the brim with culture warriors. It worked because the Tories were able to mumble some nonsense about GRA reform clashing with the Equality Act (the clashes argument relied upon arguing over how people might feel rather than anything concrete about single sex spaces, given how a Gender Recognition Certificate is emphatically not a passport to such spaces.)
Frankly, those who appear dispassionate but sympathetic in this debate have the most to gain. Those who lean into culture war arguments over it appear out of touch. And this was the genius of how the Section 35 order was deployed. The comms around it were dispassionate, perfunctory, and the government was keen to move on to other issues as soon as possible.
Instead of Rishi Sunak appearing as a culture warrior, the exercise appeared as one of boring bureaucracy, of shutting down a distracted SNP flight of fancy.
As pollster (turned Labour Candidate) Chris Curtis noted last year, transgender issues come dead last when it comes to measuring passion in the public. It is hard to think of a single issue where there is a bigger elite/ordinary divide in terms of salience. Amongst the Very Online and columnist class, gender issues are at the absolute and passionate forefront of debate. For ordinary Brits, however it’s the economy (and NHS and immigration), stupid.
And as Lord Ashcroft found even after months upon months of high profile debate over transgender issues, at the height of media salience, just 3% of Scots listed them as important.
Sunak did appear to understand this when he announced his top five priorities at the start of the year. Clearly focus grouped and polled to precision. His intervention today marks a significant drift away from that data driven discipline, right in the middle of an election campaign. If I were a Tory MP in a marginal seat, I would be worried about what this indicates.
While it might win them retweets, banging on about issues that are low down on the public’s list of priorities will not win the Tories many votes. As I have explored before, becoming a culture warrior on trans issues appears in fact to be a drag on electoral prospects rather than a boost.
Particularly, ironically, among women. As former Aussie PM Scott Morrison found to his cost last year. His anti-trans crusade for ‘women’s rights’ in fact contributed to losing suburban seats to a host of more socially liberal female candidates - known as the Teal Independents.
As pollsters have found repeatedly, it is in fact women who are far more permissive of trans issues than men. To frame the issue as a woman’s one is to fly in the face of all research on this question.
And so, Rishi Sunak’s newfound zeal for ‘women’s rights’ in fact appeals more to men (and Times columnists) than women. To the extent that it appeals to many people at all.
In short, in electoral terms this rabbit hole is a road to nowhere. Polling across the UK has found that just 2 percent think ‘the debate about transgender people’ is one of the most important issues facing the country. The problem for Sunak is that 2% is massively disproportionately lodged in the letter writing classes, and amongst the media elite. Like with Brexit, he would do well to cut through the elite noise here - and get back to real Britain.
What will win the Tories votes is relentless and disciplined focus on dealing with the issues that people care most about - the cost of living, public services actually working, and illegal migration.
Finally, I think it is fair to make a distinction between Real World and Twitter World. Some cultural issues are Real World issues - the traditional battle ground of crime and migration are of course pertinent issues that matter to key groups of voters. Time and attention spent of them will be rewarded. Twitter World cultural issues, however, like the transgender debates that obsess the terminally online, are not. And crucial time and attention spent on them risks being seen as a distraction.
If Rishi Sunak leans into these internet memes much further - he will appear as out of touch as a man who wears Prada loafers on a building site. If he continues getting pulled in to fight the online culture war, he will lose in the real world. And deserve to.
I really don’t want the Party in Westminster to lean in to the culture war, not only because I think it’s a bad move for success at the next GE but it trickles down in to local politics making it much more divisive and nasty during local campaigning.