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Yesterday, readers of this site may have spotted an interesting article in UnHerd, titled “Inside the Tory trans civil war”. It documents a dispute between Lisa Townsend, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey (and a columnist for ConservativeHome) and Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP, both of whom, it could be said, represent opposite sides of the trans debate. 

Townsend believes that gender and sex shouldn’t be conflated, and that self-identification creates risks in women’s spaces. Blunt, as Bartosch puts it, “believes that it is discriminatory to exclude those who are male but identify as trans from women’s services and spaces.” As well as being Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on LGBT+ rights, he is the MP for Reigate, Surrey (in other words, he and Townsend share a patch).

Their disagreement on trans issues came to a head when Townsend retweeted JK Rowling (see below) with a supportive comment. Blunt phoned Townsend to complain – as he had done previously when she had taken part in an interview criticising Stonewall – to make his feelings known.

But this time, after she yet again did not heed his advice, he wrote a complaint letter to the Chair of the Surrey Police and Crime Panel.

Here is an extract from it:

“The PCC’s messaging propagates dangerous myths that trans women represent a physical threat to cisgender women and, in its refusal to recognise individual’s gender identities, fundamentally undermines the dignity of trans people.”

I’ve caught up with Blunt and Townsend since UnHerd’s piece was published, to explore the matter even further. Here’s what they said:

Blunt’s account

When I speak to Blunt, a few things transpire. The first is that he seems genuinely regretful about his disagreement with Townsend. “Personally, I’m wretched about it because she used to work for me”, he says. He doesn’t like the implication that he was “bullying her”, and told her “I’m very sorry about what I’m going to have to do” (write the complaint).

Blunt clearly found Townsend’s tweet offensive, but another reason he complained surrounds the remit of a Police and Crime Commissioner. Blunt thinks Townsend is “perfectly entitled” to her views.

But, in her role, “she’s given a position where there are responsibilities to the public for policing in Surrey…we don’t want trans people feeling they’re not getting a proper service from the police” because of a PCC’s views. He thinks Police and Crime Commissioners cannot be vocal on the trans debate in the same way that MPs are, since they have parliamentary privilege.

He ultimately thinks that Townsend “is in breach of her personal obligations under public sector equality duty”, and that the matters she had been opinionated on are “dealt with in the Equality Act, where you’re able to make reasonable judgements about when you can exclude transwomen, for example, from women-only spaces like refugee spaces and prisons.”

Blunt says he wants to “lower the temperature” of the debate, and that he isn’t pushing for attention on the matter.

Townsend’s account

In much the same way that Blunt feels the this row has been foisted upon him, Townsend got into the trans debate by circumstance. In her campaign to be PCC, she said the “single biggest issue in the inbox” was concerns about conflation of sex and gender, self-identification and the Gender Recognition Act, among other issues, and their implications.

Townsend said there was a “concerted” effort among “well organised” campaigners – and otherwise – to bring these issues to PCCs’ attention and find out their views on the protection of women’s spaces. However, her four male competitors did not respond. She agreed with campaigners that “this is really concerning” and – part coincidence or not – soon won.

Townsend, about whom the Police and Crime panel has received 40 complaints since she did an interview criticising Stonewall, said she told Blunt (when he phoned about the tweet): “I am fed up of men telling me not to talk about this, and I am representing my constituents” – adding that this includes Blunt’s constituents, who write to her also about their worries. She says she was taken back by Blunt’s “arrogance and entitlement” when he rang, as she is an “elected politician” with a “duty to talk about these things.”

I ask if part of the reason for the disagreement is that she and Blunt both represent Surrey. They are two people with very different views in one area. She can see this point, but tends to think the explanation might be more that “having been a young woman that worked for him many years ago, I don’t know whether he finds it easier to call me up and tell me to do stop doing stuff or give me orders”.

What does one make of all this? Surely one takeaway is that the culture war cannot be considered a “left” or “right” issue; highly contentious ideological battles are taking place within the Conservative Party, with no signs of going away and massive implications for our society.

But here are, perhaps, two questions to take away:

  • How opinionated are PCCs allowed to be?
  • Is the wording of the Equality Act clear enough?