Have the May council elections given women an answer to that dilemma?
Surrounded by bullies, propagandists, and comfortable males who can’t be bothered to understand, women have had a hard job working out when or whether to raise women’s issues. There was much discussion in the lead up to the May elections as to whether it would affect how people voted – and which way. There is also of course the relentless barrage of nonsense women get if they’re seen going anywhere near the subject of sex-based rights. I think the elections in my town and in Cardiff give an interesting contrast for women to bear in mind next time they’re thinking ‘should I say anything’.
Hastings Borough Council lost two Labour Party women during the May elections – Ruby Cox, former councillor for Central St Leonards, and Kim Forward, who had stood down as Council Leader shortly before the election. There may be many reasons for the loss, as the Labour Party had a troubled election period in many areas but it is particularly notable in this case that Cox had been subject to a sustained, and utterly unevidenced campaign accusing her of ‘transphobia’, including condemnations on social media from organisers of Pride, and a very public denouncement from fellow (at the time) Labour Councillor Claire Carr.
Carr defected to the Green Party when it became clear she would be held accountable by the Labour Party for her treatment of Cox. You would be forgiven for thinking she always had been Green, as the local Green Party website now shows her as a Green Party Councillor “elected in May 2021”. In fact, she was elected as a Labour Councillor, on a Labour manifesto. Refusing to follow the Labour whip when the group agreed to elect Cox as deputy mayor was pretty much her first action as a councillor. This, despite her having raised no concerns about Cox with either the Labour Group or council officers previous to the vote, left many people wondering when, in fact, she started working for the Green Party.
Local self-styled LGBTQ+ reps had been complaining on social media that they hadn’t had a chance to speak to the council about what they saw as transphobia (still unevidenced, despite Pride and Carr’s continued accusations). Council Leader Forward’s initial silence was understandable – she was, after all, elected leader and immediately plunged into trying to work out how best to handle the public health and other consequences of the COVID pandemic, with a government that imposed lockdowns but did little to support either citizens or councils in that unprecedented situation.
Nevertheless, it would seem that they had plenty of communication with both the council’s Equalities lead Cllr Judy Rogers and later with Cllr Cox herself – we know this, because it resulted in Cox sending a statement of her actual views (as opposed to what people were by then assuming) to Gary Rolfe, of the Hastings and Rother Rainbow Alliance.
I understand that a post I shared on Facebook in 2018 has been taken by some to indicate that I am transphobic and opposed to trans people being treated as equal citizens. This is not the case at all and I apologise for any hurt or upset caused. At that time I did not understand the complexities of the issues surrounding trans rights, nor did I understand how easily misunderstandings could occur and offence be taken. I have in fact been an advocate for human rights all my life, and they will continue to inform both my work as a councillor and my everyday life. I sincerely hope and trust this clears up any misunderstanding. I also understand that HRRA will be holding a briefing for councillors and I hope this will provide an opportunity for further discussion and clarification of these important issues.
It can’t have been an easy one to write, because at no point was Cox told what this offending post was, or how it might offend anyone but I reproduce her statement here as evidence that she was doing her best to resolve the situation. Rolfe however, rejected Cox’s statement, despite having initially welcomed it, and sent Cox an altered version. It is hard to understand why Cllr Rogers, the council Equality lead, did not step in at this point, as Rolfe’s version required Cox to abandon her own rights as a woman, and endorse rights for trans people that they do not have under current Equality law.
There was, however, no help to be had from that quarter and, judging by emails Cox then received, Rolfe shared news of the (still unseen) post, and Cox’s apparently unsatisfactory answer, with at least one other member of the Green Party.
It was at this point that Carr made her public denouncements of Cox on social media, in the press and on the stage at Pride.
This, and a series of slanderous social media posts and press releases, led to a plan to remove the Labour whip, but Carr jumped parties, welcomed by Green Councillor Julia Hilton, before that could take effect.
Cllr Cox had to put up with the fallout from all this right up until she lost her seat at the May 2022 elections, with never a public word in her support from any other councillors – in fact, she was not even allowed to defend herself. According to Cllr Forward, the investigation into Carr’s behaviour required that councillors did not talk about it even to answer questions when asked.
Rolfe stood for The Green Party in their self-styled ‘clean and positive’ campaign in the May elections. Ore ward was, however, confidently won by Labour’s Simon Willis. Cox meanwhile, lost her St Leonards seat (always a bit of a marginal) by a mere 35 votes.
Perhaps the continuing rows and rumours, and the regular unchecked criticising of Cox and other councillors that ensued, contributed to the loss of Cllr Forward’s seat, as well. It has certainly damaged the reputation of the local Labour Party, not to mention the gender balance, leaving Hastings Borough Council with almost twice as many men as women, and the Labour Group not much better off.
Do we lose more by enforced silence than we do by speaking out…?
It makes a marked contrast with Cardiff City Council, where Labour are not only doing very well in the popularity stakes, but have a Labour group consisting of almost half women – 27 women to 28 men, and including 13 members from racialised communities. The women on council include three who have signed the Labour Women’s Declaration, and Sue Lent, whom the news site Wales Online attempted to besmirch just before the election, with an article accusing her of ‘anti-trans views’. There is no evidence for this – like many of us, Cllr Lent merely stands by her views and, like many women, that includes views in support of sex-based rights, and on the importance of child safeguarding.
I spoke to Cllr Lent after the election, and she told me she was aware that some people clearly thought women such as her should ‘keep their views to themselves’.
She had no wish to disadvantage Labour in Cardiff, and is delighted that Labour have come through this election with an increased majority. Her own vote tally, with her views on this topic very much in the news, brought her in with the second-highest tally of the four Labour candidates in her ward, a great demonstration that speaking your mind need not be a liability. In fact, a polling clerk noted ‘a pattern to the spoilt ballots’ which appeared to stem from the ‘respect my sex if you want my x’ campaign, and it was reported that the Council Leader had noted that the issue came up all over the city during campaigning.
It is true that a council in Wales is likely to bring a better result for Labour than one in England, because Mark Drakeford’s Welsh Labour Party has kept largely to the principles that the English Labour Party adopted during the Corbyn era. Nevertheless, comparing what has happened in Hastings with what happened in Cardiff, I am delighted to see evidence that women speaking their concerns, so long as it’s done in a civilised and businesslike way, brings a better result than women being silenced by others who think it’s too difficult a topic to address.
Maybe that message is beginning to get through – not all women have the same views, but enough women (and increasingly men, especially gay men) now have concerns about this issue that politicians can no longer afford to ignore them. It certainly came up on the doorstep in Hastings. Council candidates received emails asking them their views on women’s rights, and some local women felt sufficiently strongly about it that they had a stall in town, the weekend before the election. Perhaps Hastings Labour Party would have done better if they had acknowledged that such women have been given a hard time over this, and deserve a hearing.
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