A row over trans rights splits Sheffield's Green Party
‘Toxicity and fallouts and tears and anger and complaints’
Good afternoon members — and welcome to Thursday’s Tribune.
Tensions are currently running high within the Green Party in Sheffield — something which might sound of minor importance, but which has national significance (as today’s story notes, Sheffield Central is “one of the Greenest constituencies in the country”). Harry Shukman — a news reporter who previously spent two years at The Times — investigates what’s going on.
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🗳️ The six candidates in the running to be selected by Labour for Sheffield Central have issued a joint statement condemning abuse aimed at Eddie Izzard. The comedian has come under fire due to her identity as a trans woman, with some falsely claiming it increases her chances of being selected for the seat. The statement says the candidates are appalled at the “vitriolic abuse that has been directed towards candidates, including racism and transphobia”.
🏡 Owlthorpe Fields in south east Sheffield will not be used for housing, local MP Clive Betts has revealed. The green field site had been earmarked for residential development but will now not be included in the forthcoming Local Plan, Mr Betts understands. Avant Homes were given permission to build 71 homes on the site in 2021, but the decision means that the remaining two plots will remain undeveloped, subject to approval by a planning inspector.
🍻 When Kelham Island Brewery was threatened with closure earlier this year, a group of local businesses stepped into save it. Now, after a short halt in production, many of the brewery’s famous ales, including its iconic Pale Rider beer, are back in production at Thornbridge Brewery in Bakewell. Charlotte Hall gets the journalistic assignment of my dreams by reporting from the brewery’s first pour at the Fat Cat pub since its closure was announced.
Things to do
🍿 At the Abbeydale Picture House on Saturday night, Reel Steel present a special 35mm Halloween double-bill of terrifying films by legendary horror director Clive Barker. Candyman tells the story of a man who loved and paid the price with his life, whose spirit now haunts the site of his death and those who dare summon him. Hellraiser became an instant classic upon release, and remains one of the most frighteningly original visions in horror cinema.
🥒 This weekend sees the return of Pickle Fest, Sheffield’s annual celebration of all things preserved, fermented and jarred. The day will kick off with workshops, a market, and various kid-friendly activities before a community-judged pickle competition begins, with the winner being crowned “the peoples’ pickle champion”. The festival will take place at the Hideaway at 61 Eyre Lane from 12pm-10pm on Saturday, 29 October. The suggested donation is £3.
🏢 Off The Shelf comes to a close on Sunday, 30 October with an illustrated talk by architecture critic and journalist Owen Hatherley at the Millennium Gallery. Hatherley’s new book, Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer, discusses hundreds of examples of modernism from across the country (including Sheffield’s own Gleadless Valley estate) examining the style’s fiercely contested reputation and its role in our future. The event begins at 4pm and tickets are £8.
A row over trans rights splits Sheffield's Green Party
By Harry Shukman
In the darkest days of the tree-felling scandal, when council-contracted woodchippers were devouring thousands of the city’s favourite boughs, few campaigners seemed to be as busy as Alison Teal. A councillor for the Green Party, she was hauled away in a police van for trying to stop a tree being cut down in her ward of Nether Edge & Sharrow. She would spend eight hours in a cell. This was back in 2017 and Teal, a newbie to town hall, suddenly looked like a champion in the making.
The Green Party called her a “hero” and gave her a standing ovation at their national conference. “Thank you for showing us how powerful a single Green standing up for their community can be,” the party said. Teal brushed off Sheffield City Council’s legal threats in the pages of the Guardian, increased her vote share by 1,400 people at her second election in 2019 and earned the praise of fellow environmentalists across the country. Higher office would surely beckon. When a fan interviewed her at a protest for his YouTube channel, he joked: “Are you ready for power, mayor?”
How times change. Teal has been chosen by the Greens to contest Sheffield Central in the next general election, but the party is bitterly divided over her candidacy. Her selection has proved so controversial that five Green councillors — her friends and former colleagues among them — have publicly stated they will not campaign for her. This, in one of the Greenest constituencies in the country, could prove enormously damaging to her campaign. It does not take a Machiavelli to realise that trashing your own candidate is not a winning political strategy. But that wasn’t the only surprising thing about the internal dissent. In the space of five years, Teal has gone from hero to — as some of her fellow party members say — a pariah. What happened?
Since the tree campaign, Teal has turned her focus to another issue. Depending on the perspectives of her Green Party colleagues, either Teal has debated, in good faith and with respect, certain aspects of the trans debate online, pointing out areas of contention where women’s rights might clash with those of trans people. Or she has become a transphobe, opposed to party policy and, in the words of one former friend, caused “lots of toxicity and fallouts and tears and anger and complaints”.
There are five councillors who publicly opposed Teal — Angela Argenzio, Alexi Dimond, Brian Holmshaw, Ruth Mersereau and Martin Phipps. “I am a Sheffield Green Party member and I support trans rights,” they wrote on Twitter earlier this month, sharing the same image. “I will not campaign for any candidate who discriminates against trans people.” They didn’t call her out by name, but it was obvious who they meant. A week before his colleagues uploaded their statements, Dimond posted: “I didn’t vote for Alison and I won't be campaigning for her.”
While it might sound like social media drama, this was an astonishing move. Sheffield is one of the Green Party’s strongest regions. It currently has a team of 14 councillors and between 2020 and 2021, the party ran the council as part of a cooperative executive with Labour. Electing a member of parliament (nationally, there is only one Green MP) would be a dream come true for a party of this size. Why would they want to scupper their chances?
In reporting this story, we approached the dissident five to hear their argument against Teal. None of them wanted to speak to us, which was disappointing given the very public nature of their demonstration. Perhaps this is because campaigning against democratically selected candidates can result in expulsion from the Greens, although the cat has long since departed the bag.
So instead, we had to rely on speaking with other councillors to provide us context. Every Green — barring Teal — was extremely nervous about speaking on the record for fear of worsening divisions within the party or touching a very thorny issue and ‘getting cancelled’. Some instantly refused to speak, with one councillor telling me before I had finished my request for an interview: “That’s not going to happen.”
Of those I did chat with, I was left with an overwhelming impression of melancholy. On every phone call, I heard a strained voice and a lot of sighing. It made me think of a messy divorce that has involved so many arguments the prospect of forgiveness has long since been incinerated. And it’s only getting worse.
“It’s one of those horrible situations that I just wish didn’t exist,” says one Green councillor. “I wish it would just all go away and she would step down and we could get on with our lives.” They say Teal’s stances on trans debates have alienated her from the other elected councillors. “Allison’s been really divisive,” they tell me. “She’s very much gone down a rabbit hole with this. It impacted on her effectiveness as a councillor, very difficult to work with. Not a good team player, a bit ego-driven. She doesn’t have the backing of quite a lot of us.”
This councillor tells me that anti-Teal Greens have been discussing how they might get the national party to deny funding from her electoral campaign. Sheffield Central is a target constituency, and is entitled to financial support from the Green Party for a campaign staffer, but according to this source, there are discussions going on within the party about yanking the money. “It’s a real risk,” they say. “I’m not in those conversations, but that’s definitely being highlighted.”
This councillor, who describes themselves as a former friend of Teal’s, adds: “She’s very stubborn, but essentially has a democratic mandate because she won a selection vote. But she does lack empathy — and it causes upset. She’ll end up with nobody to organise it and no funding.”
Perhaps this has already happened. Teal was selected at a meeting in late September, and the party has yet to officially announce it. The local party did not respond to a request for comment.
So what has Teal said that has caused such trouble? On Twitter, she says she supports trans rights and has “great admiration for the courage of trans people and no malice whatsoever”. She has also said: “Trans women are trans women and trans men are trans men and since I commonly hear trans people refer to themselves as trans I don't see why anyone decides to be offended on their behalf.” This is a controversial statement in some progressive circles, where a trans person’s decision to identify in their chosen gender is seen as them belonging to that gender, hence the phrases “trans women are women” and “trans men are men”.
Teal also says there are conflicts between women’s rights and trans rights, particularly in women’s prisons, bathrooms and domestic violence refugees. A few days before the dissident five launched their protest, Teal shared an incendiary article on Twitter about the comedian Eddie Izzard (who has been openly transgender since 1985, but who publicly adopted she/her pronouns in December 2020), running to represent Labour in Sheffield Central, who was photographed entering a women’s loo just before a campaign event. The blog accused Izzard of using the ladies in an “arrogant assertion of power over women whose rights he cares nothing for”, and Teal shared a quote that read: “The loss of women’s rights starts with looking the other way for an Eddie Izzard and ends with a society that doesn’t flinch at placing a male sex offender in jail with women.”
It may have been this tweet that prompted the dissidents to act. Among the critical responses to Teal’s post were people accusing her of fear-mongering. This being the internet, others went much further. One reader said she had “undone years of work to convince Sheffield locals that the Greens are inclusive”. Another said she was on the side of the “international Neo-Nazi movement” for expressing gender critical views.
Teal, when we speak, says she was “very sad and shocked” by the Twitter protests. “I’m a bit frustrated we didn’t have the opportunity to discuss those concerns prior to creating some adverse publicity,” she tells me. “There’s an attempt to sabotage the campaign before it happens, which is highly regrettable and very unprofessional.” She says she had had the odd conversation online or on the phone with some of the dissidents about trans issues, but nothing much — and definitely nothing heated — before the graphics appeared.
Having reported on other council races where damaging accusations were levelled at candidates to derail their campaigns, I ask Teal if she sees any political motivation behind the dissidents. No, she responds. “They’re good people. I don’t think they wish me ill, but they’re so concerned and passionate about the issue they felt compelled to do this.”
She still hopes to speak to the group and find common ground with them, adding: “I want to allay their fears. Of course I don’t mean any harm towards any marginalised group of people but they’ve got a sense that I do, and that’s really unfortunate.” Posting these graphics, however, was like “airing our dirty laundry in public” and a “foolish strategy” that would put voters off.
In any case, Teal says trans issues will not resonate when it comes to the next election. “There’s the climate crisis,” she says, “the cost of living crisis, the energy crisis, increasing poverty, the massive disparity between the wealthy and the rest of us.” Indeed, most voters are not that interested in debates around trans issues. According to YouGov polling from this summer, two-thirds of people say they pay little or no attention to the topic, although around half say they believe discrimination against trans people is a problem.
But the Sheffield Greens are clearly very upset about Teal. Separate to colleagues who are trying to undermine her campaign are Greens who are simply confused and saddened by the debate. “People get defensive and we don’t really get to the bottom of it,” says one councillor, who exasperatedly tells me: “I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong… it’s a minefield and has to be handled very sensitively.”
Teal does have supporters. She was selected by the members in a first preference vote with 56 percent, giving her a democratic mandate for the campaign. A party source says: “Anyone disliking that is disliking democracy, and discrediting all those voters.” Anecdotally, this source claims, a handful of members in their ward have become so fed up with debates that a small number have quit.
The Greens have become acrimoniously split on this issue. Siân Berry quit as the party leader over a row on trans rights and Shahrar Ali, a former spokesman, is suing the party for being dismissed from his role because of gender-critical views. An internal party report has alleged a “hostile environment” over this topic. Teal hopes to resolve the argument within the Sheffield party and regain the support of her colleagues. Otherwise, come the next election, she could find herself in the strange position of running a ghost campaign.