Lib Dems must fly higher
Updated: Mar 19
A controversial initiative endangering free speech
Below this blog we reproduce a recent article by Nigel Scott: “How the Liberal Democrats police wrongthink”. Citing words of George Orwell, Nigel says that his party has been ideologically captured by militant trans-activists, and that members who oppose this face re-education to correct their beliefs, or expulsion should they persist.
CAMPAIN does not get involved in debates over trans rights, but we vigorously support the public’s right to openly debate the topic, providing they do it in a civil manner and without recourse to hate speech. Nigel believes that his party is in fact suppressing free speech on this topic, and without justification.
This is a controversial initiative by those currently in control of the Party, though some Lib Dems vigorously oppose it. Central to the initiative is a transphobia definition which the Party’s Federal Board decided to adopt. Both the definition and the decision to adopt it were announced in an article in Lib Dem Voice dated September 19th 2020. According to the authors, the definition would help guide members who wanted to support the trans community and would be key to supporting the Party’s disciplinary processes.
Following a lamentable precedent
Those drafting this transphobia definition have clearly drawn on the ‘the working definition of anti-Semitism’ of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). Mirroring the IHRA it comes with a list of examples of transphobic behaviour. Four of these largely repeat the wording of examples of potentially antisemitic conduct listed under the IHRA definition, though the target of the alleged abuse is trans people as opposed to Jewish people or the State of Israel.
We have repeatedly drawn attention to the problematic nature of the IHRA definition, and particularly its list of examples. The Lib Dem Party’s Federal Board adopted it in September 2018 – similarly to the transphobia definition, without it being debated at a Party Conference.
According to Oxford researcher Jamie Stern-Weiner, the IHRA definition “was principally drafted and negotiated by two pro-Israel advocacy groups (the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Weisenthal Center), not scholars of Jewish history”. He goes on to describe these as “interested, partisan organisations” that “engage, inter alia, in blanket pro-Israel advocacy”, and have “conflated legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism”.
Pro-Israel lobbyists have mobilised the IHRA document for political goals unrelated to tackling antisemitism, notably to shield the Israeli government from criticism of its conduct towards Palestinians and to falsely frame pro-Palestinian activists as antisemitic. In an expert submission to the European Commission, Amos Goldberg, Peter Ullrich and Brian Klug provide a long list of instances (document available on writing to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Most importantly, pro-Israel advocates have been using the definition, often with success, to pressure universities and political parties to deny critics of Israel a platform, to close down public events, to restrict free speech about Israel on the internet, to stymie efforts to sanction Israel for its conduct, and to get people critical of Israel dismissed from their posts. Some of these advocates have moreover sought to enshrine the IHRA definition into law and incorporate it into the training of attorneys and judges, university codes of conduct and antisemitism guidelines.
This awful precedent should have alerted Lib Dems to the danger that the transphobia definition would be similarly used to promote a partisan agenda. According to Nigel, “the definition seeks to constrain thought and speech well beyond the bounds that should be acceptable in a democratic party. Its sanctions are draconian”. In this regard he quotes Audrey Ludwig of the Legal Feminist collective saying that [were this code implemented] “it is hard to see how one could either oppose gender self-ID, or advocate for maintaining sex-based rights or single sex spaces and facilities, or for keeping the provisions in the Equality Act that make such things possible”.
Another example of censorship
Trans rights is not the only topic on which Liberal Democrats police ‘wrongthink’.
Our Secretary, Jonathan Coulter, has comprehensively documented how the Lib Dems censor discussion about the veracity, or otherwise, of Lib Dem leaders’ repeated allegations about antisemitism in the Labour Party. A succession of Party leaders including Tim Farron, Vince Cable, Jo Swinson and Layla Moran have chosen to treat the allegations as fact, rather than examine hard evidence on the matter. The problem was highlighted in this article in Middle East Monitor.
Jonathan and 11 other Lib Dems sought to get the topic openly debated on no less than eight Lib Dem discussion platforms including LibDemVoice and its member-engagement forum called Policy Lab. However, in all these cases they found their postings were either disallowed or heavily censored. On one Facebook group, a small group of party activists and position-holders greeted them with appalling ad hominem abuse including four-letter words; despite complaints, the party’s standards officers allowed this misbehaviour to go unpunished.
Jonathan brought all this to the attention of the party leadership using different channels but obtained no substantive response. It appears that in both the transphobia and antisemitism cases, the Party has allowed itself to be manipulated by very determined lobbies, and without considering the interests of the nation at large. It might aptly be described as an example of the tail wagging the dog.
One might argue that the Lib Dems deserve sympathy since, as a centre party in a first-past-the-post electoral system, they are particularly vulnerable to pressures from external lobbies. Indeed, we think fear of retribution and of being ‘monstered’ by the press plays a role in the party’s acquiescence to the wishes of the Israel lobby. However, when all is said and done, undue compliance with militant lobbies is short-sighted and hobbles the Lib Dems’ ability to develop a coherent political platform or remain true to the idealistic principles that have historically driven liberalism and are likely to attract recruits. It risks creating an uninspiring party policed by officials constantly on the lookout to ensure that internal debate does not deviate from the party line.
Keep definitions simple
Apart from this, we also question the wisdom of using complex new definitions to combat racism and discrimination against minority groups. Inasmuch as definitions are needed, we would strongly recommend using simple ones such as:
hostility to or prejudice against <minority X>, as <minority X>
where the minority X may be Roma, Jews, Muslims, lesbians, gays, trans people or other groups. Such an approach is advantageous in terms of simplicity and in helping to achieve equality among groups subjected to racism and discrimination. It will not protect people who are genuinely abusive towards minorities but will help ensure that people are judged according to common principles that relate to all humankind.
By contrast, there is a serious risk that complex definitions modelled wholly or in part on the IHRA definition will be manipulated in favour of partisan agendas and lead to a hierarchy of racism or discrimination that favours some minorities over others. Many people place their hopes in the Lib Dems, so we urge them to take this problem seriously.
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“The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” ― George Orwell, 1984 Liberal Democrats who are pushing back against the ideological capture of the party by transactivists face re-education to correct their beliefs. This is the story of how it is carried out.
In 2020, the disciplinary sub-group of the party’s Federal Board, drafted a ‘Definition of Transphobia’. The sub-group comprised Candy Piercy and two Federal Board colleagues. The Transphobia Definition was envisaged as a device that could be used to ‘educate’ or purge party members who fail to accept the mantra, “Transwomen are women”. Its wording draws heavily on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, with key words substituted as required. This similarity caused raised eyebrows in some quarters.
The sub-group’s new Definition was then approved by the ‘Steering Group’ of the Federal Board, which is chaired by president Mark Pack. It was never discussed by the full board or debated or considered by any other party body – a surprising absence of democracy, some might say. On the 19th September 2020 its adoption was announced to the readers of Liberal Democrat Voice as being ‘key to supporting the Party’s disciplinary processes’, as though it had just been handed down to Moses on the peak of Mount Sinai.
The Definition seeks to constrain thought and speech well beyond the bounds that should be acceptable in a democratic party. Its sanctions are draconian. For genuine “errors and misunderstandings”, an apology or retraction will usually suffice. However, repeat offenders should be dealt with more severely: “this is especially true if they have been challenged by others, and they have been pointed to resources to help them learn about trans rights and transphobia.” In other words, re-education and a chance to repent are to be the first resort, with the possibility of disciplinary action and expulsion to follow for those who persist.
Audrey Ludwig of legalfeminist.org.uk studied the Definition and made several points in a critique she published. She highlighted its fundamental flaws, particularly vis a vis its impact on anyone who dared to defend women’s rights. Her conclusions were damning:
"Taken at its highest, it could be said that this definition treats both the Equality Act and Gender Recognition Act as 'transphobic', since both contain provisions identifying circumstances where trans people are treated as a separate category". "In some contexts, it requires the denial of simple biological fact. This is the case, even if you believe that it is possible for a human being to change their biological sex – given that very many trans people will have undergone no medical transition whatsoever, as the document itself expressly recognises. To say that a person, or a group of people, identify as female but are biologically male is not only a factual statement, it is in some contexts a highly relevant statement: for instance, when considering how they should be housed within the prison estate, or whether they can fairly compete in sport against natal women".
"It is hard to see how there could be any meaningful advocacy of gender critical views within the Liberal Democrats. In particular, it is hard to see how one could either oppose gender self-ID, or advocate for maintaining sex-based rights or single sex spaces and facilities, or for keeping the provisions in the Equality Act that make such things possible. The document therefore effectively requires certain policy positions to be supported, on pain of a finding of transphobia and potential expulsion. Dissent is to be rooted out, not by reasoned discussion and debate, but by the exercise of power. It is authoritarian, and illiberal, for a party to close down internal debate in this way on issues of live political controversy.”
“You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves.” ― George Orwell, 1984
Since the party’s revised discipline process was introduced in 2019, more than 1,000 complaints have been raised, many of which relate to transphobia and now fall under the new definition. More ‘troublesome’ members have been subjected to multiple complaints. One prospective parliamentary candidate, Natalie Bird, was stripped of all party roles and suspended because she once wore a T-shirt bearing the statement, “Woman – adult human female”. When grilled by Andrew Marr on television, leader Sir Ed Davey was unable to say what was wrong with the statement. Bird is crowdfunding a case against the party for breaching the Equality Act.
A Muslim member and former councillor with a distinguished track record as a campaign organiser expressed the view that some aspects of the party’s current LGBTQ policy are ‘unwise’, particularly in the way they might impact on school students. Although he indicated that he was prepared to keep his misgivings to himself, the Transphobia Definition was used against him and his continued membership of the party was declared “conditional upon successfully completing mandatory training on LGBTQ+ rights and awareness . . .. and he . . . should not be permitted to hold any office or be on any approved list of candidates until such training is successfully completed. The training he was instructed to submit to is provided by Midas Training Solutions, a company controlled by Candy Piercy, LibDem Federal Board member and co-author of the Transphobia Definition. In any other political party, there might be accusations that Ms Piercy has a conflict of interest here, but the Liberal Democrats are not that sort of party.
“Perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self-denial simply a sham concealing iniquity.” ― George Orwell, 1984