Britain’s most powerful union leader has joined a group of feminist campaigners to sign a controversial letter that accuses some transgender rights activists of violent and intimidating behaviour.
The Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, was one of about 140 people, including Julie Bindel and Ruth Serwotka, who signed a letter in the Morning Star warning that a handful of recent episodes risked drawing “the whole of our progressive movement into disrepute”.
The letter highlights a series of recent incidents, including the conviction of Tara Wood, 26, in April for the assault of Maria MacLachlan “a 60-year-old woman who had gathered with others in order to attend a meeting” to discuss “the potential impact on women and girls” of changes to the Gender Recognition Act.
It also described a confrontation on a Bectu union picket line in March, saying that “trans activists, with no connection to the industrial dispute itself, mobbed and verbally attacked a female trade union member on the basis of having recognised her as an attendee at a similar meeting”.
McCluskey initially said he had signed the letter “to improve the climate of debate around proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act” but immediately faced criticism for signing a document that appeared to make little reference to transgender rights.
Laura Murray, the head of external relations in the office of Jeremy Corbyn, tweeted: “I’m apparently ‘disgusting’ and ‘not a feminist or a socialist’ because I stand against transphobia. But according to today’s letter in the Morning Star, all abusive behaviour in this debate comes from trans activists! Jesus wept.”
The union leader clarified his position, tweeting that “I oppose all hate crime including against trans people” and said that Unite, whose policy conference is going on a Brighton, had agreed a more conciliatory “executive statement”.
That asserted: “We oppose division between our Women’s movement and our Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans movement, our campaigns to tackle discrimination are inclusive and member led.”
Ministers this week launched a long expected consultation on potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 that would make it easier for transgender people to achieve legal recognition of an acquired gender – a prospect that has caused intense debate since it was first mooted in 2016.
The act already allows people to change their gender without first having had surgical treatment, but since it came into force, 4,910 people have legally changed their gender, partly because it requires people to provide medical reports and other documentation to prove they have been living in their acquired gender for two years.
Many feminists have questioned the implications of making it easier for people to reassign their gender, questioning for example whether it is appropriate to share women only spaces with male bodied people who identify as women.
The Morning Star letter says its signatories do not share a particular position regarding the act, but concludes that “whatever your view … you will agree it is unacceptable for women to be made scared to engage in political life”.