Luciana Berger: “It’s as much my Labour party as it is anyone else’s”
While she has been in the spotlight in recent times for speaking out against anti-Semitism, Luciana Berger has become renowned in the Commons for her campaigning on mental health. And though she is no longer in a front bench role, the Liverpool Wavertree MP is still managing to influence the debate. She talks to Sebastian Whale about why every government department must take action
It is a testament to Luciana Berger’s quiet defiance that she chooses Parliament Square as our meeting point. Just weeks earlier she was one of the Labour MPs demonstrating in the epicentre of Britain’s protest scene calling for Jeremy Corbyn to stamp out anti-Semitism from the party.
The iconic location has recently been in the news for more positive reasons. A statue of Millicent Fawcett, the first of a woman to grace the square, now sits among 11 male historical figures. Perched yards away from the immortalised suffragist, we reflect on the local elections after a balmy bank holiday break.
On a mixed night for the two main parties, Labour failed to prize Westminster and Wandsworth from the Conservatives. More tellingly, the Tories regained overall control of Barnet, a key Labour target. The party’s chances in the council, which has a large Jewish population, were damaged by the furore over anti-Semitism, I begin.
“It wasn’t just Barnet,” Berger interjects. “We saw the impact of anti-Semitism most acutely in Barnet. But it wasn’t just in Barnet, it was all across the country where it was a contributing factor.
“I think the message from this election is the incredible amount we need to do right across the country. Not just the Jewish community, but the wider community, wants to see real action on this. The action needs to be swift, it needs to be concrete, it needs to be robust.
“Jennie Formby [Labour’s General Secretary] has been in post for a few weeks now. Now the local elections are over, I’ll be looking to see some very strong action taken.”
Berger, who is Jewish, believes such action would involve dealing with longstanding cases of alleged anti-Semitism, arguing there are too many “that have been hanging in the balance for an extended period of time”.
One of these relates to former London mayor Ken Livingstone, who claimed Hitler supported Zionism before he “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews”. “I’m on record on many occasions, including most recently in the Chamber, saying there is no place for Ken Livingstone in the Labour party,” Berger says.
She would also like to see councils sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. “There are still too many examples across the country where anti-Semitism is raising its ugly head. On the ground and in my constituency, I’ve raised a number of cases in recent weeks. I’m still hearing about them,” she adds.
Berger played a key role in bringing the issue to mainstream consciousness. In March, she demanded answers to a 2012 Facebook comment in which Corbyn appeared to defend an anti-Semitic mural.
For raising the matter and taking part in the subsequent demonstration, which was organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, Berger incurred abuse online – an unwelcome mainstay of much of her time as an MP. In a piece for the Sunday Times in April, she revealed that one Labour member emailed her to say that she should kill herself.
Some critics, she tells me, also accuse her of personally delving through Corbyn’s social media history to find incriminating evidence against him. She says she was alerted to the post when someone copied her into a message.
While Berger says she is not accusing Corbyn or those around him of being anti-Semitic, she endorses Momentum chief Jon Lansman’s conclusion that there is an “unconscious bias” at the top of the party. “That’s one way of looking at it. I’m not accusing anyone of being anti-Semitic, but we do have an issue within the party that needs to be dealt with,” she adds.
The Labour leader regained some semblance of control by apologising, but tempers flared when Len McCluskey claimed in an article in the New Statesman that MPs were using the anti-Semitism row to “attack and undermine” Corbyn.
Berger, clearly angry at the intervention, composes herself. “It’s grossly offensive and it’s not in keeping with what Jeremy Corbyn himself has said. He has said very robustly that this is an issue to be taken seriously. So, in terms of virtue signalling, it’s very unhelpful for the leader of Unite to be making these statements,” she says.
While in the spotlight for speaking out against anti-Semitism, Berger has also become renowned for her campaigning on an issue close to her heart throughout her eight years in Westminster.
Luciana Berger was born in London and lived in Wembley. She is the great niece of Labour MP Manny Shinwell, who served as a minister in Clement Attlee’s government. Berger entered parliament in 2010 as MP for Liverpool Wavertree at the age of 28 after three years as the director of Labour Friends of Israel.
She was made shadow minister for public health in 2013 under Ed Miliband after a stint as the party’s spokesperson on climate change. She was appointed shadow minister for mental health in September 2015 before resigning from the Shadow Cabinet in June 2016.
To date, Berger has provided 132 spoken contributions in the House on mental health. She is the president of the Labour campaign for mental health and a member of the Health select committee.
Berger first took an interest in the subject while a student at Birmingham University. “Mental health touches all of us,” she explains. “It won’t be a surprise to you to know that I have seen and had a close family member suffer with their mental health.
“Obviously now we’re talking about it so much more. We’re now in a very different place today than we were back in 2010. We’ve still got some distance to go before those barriers and those stigmas are broken down. There is a job to do on that front.”
She points to a 2012 debate in which many MPs, including her Labour colleague Kevan Jones and Tory backbencher Charles Walker, spoke out about their own battles with mental health. “That was a moment, a really important moment,” she says. “I think what’s changed is the number of colleagues on both sides of the House that take part in debates or discussions or mention mental health at all.”
Though no longer on the front bench, Berger has found the means to influence the debate on mental health. Her recent amendments to the Financial Claims and Guidance Bill, which allows people in a mental health crisis and struggling with serious debt “breathing space” from creditors, were backed by MPs.
And in April she introduced her Health Impacts (Public Sector Duty) Bill, which calls for a “health in all policies” approach to government. This would require ministers to consider the impact on the nation’s physical and mental health from policies across departments including extending transport networks to introducing a new curriculum in schools.
“The Department of Health and Jeremy Hunt cannot solve our nation’s mental health challenges or our physical health challenges alone. It’s not possible,” Berger says.
“If you look at the journey of the NHS since it was created 70 years ago, it was originally contending with infectious diseases, accidents, diseases of poverty. Now it’s increasingly dealing with lifestyle-related disease.”
She adds: “If we’re serious about having an NHS for the next 70 years and the next 70 years after that, then we need to seriously shift and think about how we keep people well.”
The Government has “policies created in individual departments which are negatively impacting on our nation’s health”, Berger argues. When pressed for examples, she points to changes to the disability benefits system by the DWP that the High Court ruled in December “blatantly discriminate” against people with mental health conditions.
Berger reels off a number of areas where ministers are falling short of achieving the stated aim of parity of esteem between mental and physical health. These include a 1,500 reduction in mental health beds and a 5,000 drop in the number of NHS mental health nurses, through to more preventative measures such as youth centres closing and a fall in the number of mental health crisis centres.
“You can’t say parity of esteem on one hand and then see cuts at that level to the number of mental health nurses,” she says. “The idea that you’re taking community mental health nurses and putting them on hospital wards, they’re not trained to do that. I think it’s very naughty for [Jeremy Hunt] to provide that contrast.”
With Mental Health Awareness Week just around the corner, a joint select committee report has cast a damning verdict on the government’s proposals to improve support for children battling mental health problems, which includes plans to trial a new four-week NHS waiting time target for mental health services in some areas.
MPs on the Health and Education select committees said the plans are “unambitious” and would “provide no help to the majority of those children who desperately need it”.
“We know that the overwhelming majority of adults with a diagnosable mental health condition would have developed it as a young person. If we’re not helping them early on, how are we going to give that young person the best start in life?” asks Berger.
She argues that social media is an “important component” of the debate regarding children and young people’s mental health, but insists we should not “kid ourselves” about the scale of its influence. Instead, she argues that exam stress, poor levels of care and confused government policy are contributing to poor mental health among the demographic.
“This is a social justice issue. Again, if you are an 11-year-old child, you’re three to four times more likely to experience mental ill health if you’re from the lowest income group than you are in the highest. This is about poverty, it’s about insecure housing, an increasing number of families who are not in secure tenancies, people who are in the precarious private rented sector. There are a few other factors,” she says.
But Berger does say that social media companies have “work to do to make sure their platforms are safe spaces”. She signals an opportunity to put down amendments to the Digital Infrastructure Bill, with MPs “looking at what happens in Germany” with regard to regulation.
“We are discussing whether we should have a set up whereby people would not be able to do things anonymously. Everything should be properly registered. We’re looking at what tangible things can be done to make that difference.”
In a nod to her contribution to the inquiry, Berger was chosen to present the report on the Government’s proposals on children and young people’s mental health to the Commons this week.
But it is another piece of oratory for which she recently gained plaudits. In an impassioned speech during a debate on anti-Semitism, she recounted some of the horrific racism she has endured. She recalled the first piece of hate mail she received aged 19 in which she was described as a “dirty Zionist pig”.
“One anti-Semitic member of the Labour party is one member too many,” she said at the time. “And yes, as I’ve said outside this place in Parliament Square, and it pains me to say this proudly as the chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, in 2018 within the Labour party anti-Semitism is more commonplace, is more conspicuous and is more corrosive.”
I wonder, as we discuss the speech, whether the level of abuse directed at her has ever led Berger to contemplate throwing in the towel. But given where we’re sat, these thoughts are quickly laid to rest.
“It’s as much my Labour party as it is anyone else’s Labour party,” Berger says.
“I’ve got a very strong background and history within the Labour party, as does my family. It’s all of our jobs to ensure that the Labour party has always been and continues to be a broad church.”