Liz Truss is right about sex and gender. But if she is to get the country through the next winter she needs to think again about her ‘bonfire’ of workers’ rights.
‘I’m a plain talking Yorkshire woman,’ Truss said at a hustings in Cardiff, before announcing, ‘I know that a woman is a woman.’ Circular reasoning perhaps, but the audience knew exactly what she meant. There was not only applause, but a sense of relief, even laughter. She took a poke at certain sectors of society – ‘parts of Whitehall’ and ‘parts of the public sector’ – who didn’t seem to get it before making her point:
‘I will make sure that single sex spaces like domestic violence shelters are protected’.
Cue more applause. While polls suggest that the Tory party electorate is already sewn up, it’s also a message that will be understood by plain talking people everywhere. As Keir Starmer fumbles over basic truths – as recently as June he was trying to argue that the ‘vast majority’ of women don’t have a penis – Truss is on a level with ordinary people who have known the difference between men and women since the dawn of history.
While that is a superb advantage to take into the next general election, will it be significant? I have written many pieces on sex and gender over the past few years. To me, such basic truths as biological sex are crucial. I am a scientist, and I was born into the age of reason. I worry that abandoning absolute truths does not augur well for a stable society.
But this coming winter looks likely to deliver us so many immediate problems that sex and gender are unlikely to get a look in on the doorsteps of the Red Wall or indeed anywhere else. When I was a child in the 1970s and 1980s, my grandmother’s response to what she considered trivial moans and grumbles was generally along the lines of ‘they need another war; that would show them what’s what.’ Heaven only knows what she would have made of youngsters complaining about being misgendered or deadnamed.
We might not be in another military conflict – not directly at least – but we are in an economic war with Russia that may properly test the resolve of Western nations for the first time in a generation. Adding a Ukraine flag to a social media profile might provoke a warm feeling inside, but it doesn’t heat our homes or put food on the table.
As energy prices rocket and food prices ratchet up, those coming off fixed-term mortgage deals are suddenly finding out what interest rates used to be like before the financial crash of 2008. But in the midst of this economic pain, Truss is reported to be eyeing up a ‘bonfire of workers’ rights’, and planning sweeping reforms to trade union laws.
This is a mistake. Of course Truss is worried about strikes. As well as teaching children and writing for The Spectator, I am a trade unionist and so I know why she is worried about strikes. The threat of a strike is sometimes the only tool that a workforce can use to bring an employer to the negotiating table. But there is a difficult winter ahead, and the alternatives to the negotiating table are far less palatable for everyone.
Make no mistake, it is not easy to take strike action. Times have changed massively since the days of Red Robbo and Arthur Scargill. Postal ballots are a must, stiff thresholds must be reached, and notice periods served. When workers take strike action in 2022, they do so because they are already at the end of their tether. Far better for an employer to negotiate with a recognised trade union officer, and come to agreement, than face a disorganised and despondent workforce that simply withdraws goodwill and does the minimum as they look for work elsewhere. No trade union law can prevent the damage that sort of action can do to a business in disarray.
If we want to get through the coming winter in one piece as a country, we need to work together. This is no time to talk about employment legislation: the situation is too urgent for that. As Frances O’Grady – General Secretary of the TUC – has said, ‘Liz Truss’s number one priority should be to help families pay their bills this winter.’
The country cannot look for work elsewhere – or at least most of us can’t – but it can withdraw goodwill. Should that happen, Truss may quickly find herself on the opposition benches watching helpless as a rainbow coalition sets alight a bonfire of women’s rights.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.
* This article was first published by The Spectator on 5 September 2022: Liz Truss will come to regret her ‘bonfire’ of workers’ rights.