Minutes after Henry Bolton was elected leader of UKIP on Friday with a promise to make the party cover a broader range of issues, he was sat in a basement room in a Torquay conference centre considering the issue of transgender rights.
“Quite honestly I think it is getting a bit far when we are encouraging children in some cases to question their own sexuality,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I think that is certainly going too far.”
With Brexit now government policy, UKIP – which has now changed its logo to a patriotic Premier League-influenced lion rather than the old sturdy yellow pound – is on the roam for new policies that will expand its appeal.
And, judging by the response from attendees at the party’s annual conference, the party could be about to provide a willing vehicle for a political culture war over transgender issues that has so far failed to take hold in the UK in the same way it has in the US.
Various fringe stalls around the conference venue contain material attacking the apparent spread of transgender activism. One leaflet contains an attack on “Gender bending at school”, with a warning on how children could be indoctrinated with pro-trans thoughts. Another leaflet, produced by a Christian group, says transgender individuals deserve “kindness, not endorsement” and suggests counselling to teach people to reject sex reassignment surgery.
“Why do schools all over the country suddenly have a sharp upsurge in gender confused children?” outgoing interim leader Steve Crowther asked party activists on Friday afternoon. “Why do the Christian parents of a 6-year-old get vilified by BBC presenters for taking their child out of a class in which a fellow 6-year-old is allowed to be both a boy and a girl?”
Crowther’s speech – a sprawling attack on political correctness and a defence of “common sense” – was well-received by the audience of largely elderly pro-Brexit party activists. The political temptation to follow this approach is clear: The leaders of all the UK’s other major political parties are broadly in favour of extending transgender rights, even at a time when some parts of the media are finding a very receptive audience for stories about the spread of transgender rights into schools.
What’s more, polling suggests many voters – especially older ones who were more prone to vote for Brexit – feel uneasy with the victories for transgender rights activists. Among UKIP supporters, YouGov found 48% opposed plans by the Conservative government to make it simpler for people to switch gender.
Finding representatives of this view was not hard among the 600 or so attendees in Torquay. David Meacock, a professional musician and UKIP member: “If you’re born with a willy you’re a man and if you’re not then you’re a woman. This idea of being able to make a choice – it’s absolute cruelty to youngsters.”
Meacock, who was at the conference attempting to sell a plastic device for safely delivering election leaflets through letterboxes without losing fingers to hungry dogs – an invention inspired by personal experience – added: “A lot of people seem to think that what makes us men or women is what’s between our legs. It’s not, we’re totally wired differently. It’s a waste of financial and surgical talent resources. People just need to accept what they’ve got.”
It’s a view backed by John Wallace, another UKIP activist on the conference floor, who said he’s “horrified” that young children are having to understand why a friend “went in as a boy one day and came out as a girl”.
Discussion of transgender rights are a recent addition to the party’s policy spectrum. UKIP's Nikki Sinclaire, a former MEP, was the UK's first trans parliamentarian – although she only talked about her gender after leaving the party amid disputed claims the issue had been used to blackmail her.
Some in the party, such as UKIP LGBT deputy chairman Dan Channing, said secondary schools should be teaching children about transgender issues and making children “aware that it’s not a bad thing” in order to reduce potential bullying. “UKIP is a party that is diverse," he said, insisting he was proud to represent transgender members.
New leader Bolton – who a decade ago was a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate – is perhaps less sure on the issue of transgender rights than some other failed leadership candidates. But he still considers it a matter that is open for debate.
“If somebody feels it has gone too far they should be free to express that concern,” he said when asked whether it was an issue that concerned him. “What concerns me more than anything at the moment in that debate is that there is an effort to silence any dissenting voice, and I don’t think that is in keeping with the principle of freedom of speech.”