Luciana Berger: “I never in a million years anticipated leaving the Labour party”
Luciana Berger had never imagined leaving the party she joined as a student nearly 20 years ago. But, as she grew deeply unhappy at the Labour leadership’s response to allegations of anti-Semitism, her departure became inevitable. She talks to Kevin Schofield about The Independent Group and new beginnings
If you want to know whether a major political event is in the offing, it’s worth checking whether Luciana Berger is pregnant.
When her first child was less than four weeks old, Theresa May announced the snap election that would ultimately deprive her of her Commons majority.
Now, with less than a fortnight to go until her second baby arrives, Berger herself is at the centre of a Westminster storm after quitting the Labour party to join seven of her colleagues in the new Independent Group.
The move came just a fortnight after she had been due to face two motions of no confidence by members of her Liverpool Wavertree constituency. They were eventually dropped following a furore which saw Tom Watson accuse her local critics of “bullying and hatred” towards their Jewish MP.
It seems fair to ask how she is coping with the pressure, given her physical condition.
“You can’t choose when nature intervenes,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t fine. I worked last time until two days before the baby came. I had my baby and then we had the general election we were told was never going to happen and my baby was less than four weeks old and I was thrust into having to campaign. It’s not ideal and I would not recommend that. But that’s politics – it’s fast moving.”
That’s an understatement. In 2019, politics moves at warp speed. Within an hour of our chat, three Conservative MPs had quit their parties to join the ex-Labour rebels in their new political movement.
Things are moving so fast, Berger says, that they’ve yet to have their inaugural meeting and therefore have no actual policies.
The Independent Group’s funding is similarly opaque. Critics have suggested that big-money private donors who flocked to New Labour and fled once Jeremy Corbyn became leader, may find a new centrist party more to their liking. So far, the TIG are relying on visitors to their website making small donations, says Berger. But she is unwilling to be drawn on whether much larger cheques are about to be written.
“There might be supporters that come from all quarters,” she says. “I’ve not been involved directly in those discussions. We want to be able to make an impact. Politics comes at a price, so we do need to raise funds in order to make that happen.
“Of course we need donations. There’s a separate conversation to be had in the future about how do we fund politics in this country, but we need to work within the constructs of what we’ve got at the moment.”
Having first joined the Labour party as a student nearly 20 years ago, it was not an easy decision for Luciana Berger to leave. But it’s clear that the events of the past year – since Jewish groups protested in Parliament Square against anti-Semitism in Labour – have made her departure inevitable.
She speaks of seeing herself described as a “Jewish MP” on the Sky News ticker with an air of weary resignation: “I certainly never got into politics to anticipate seeing me being defined by my faith.”
“Because I have served as the parliamentary chair of the Jewish Labour Movement, it has been my responsibility to do everything possible to address the issue of anti-Semitism within the Labour party,” she says.
“The escalation of it happened around the debate on adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in full. It was so toxic. There were people who were not of the Jewish faith seeking to opine and impose what they believed should be the definition of anti-Semitism in a way that would not be appropriate for any other minority group in this country.”
She goes on: “You join a party because of the values you hold dear and you choose the one that most chimes with those values. I joined as a student and for me the issues I was campaigning on were around equality and anti-racism.
“For many of us, those values are part of our family tradition and history and heritage. It’s also the party that the British Jewish community naturally saw as their home, although things have changed in recent years. I never in a million years anticipated even contemplating leaving the party, let alone as an elected representative.”
Responsibility for the current state of affairs, she says, must rest with Jeremy Corbyn. Berger explains that despite her repeated complaints about anti-Semitic abuse from members, the pair have not had a meeting since November 2017. “The first time I was invited to a meeting to discuss any of these issues again was last Wednesday at 11.52,” she reveals.
But as someone from a Labour tradition, is she not worried that splitting the left vote will simply usher in more years of Tory rule, as many still blame the SDP for in the 1980s?
“I read something yesterday that from the electoral data that’s now been considered from that time, the SDP took more votes off the Tories, so that’s a lazy argument,” Berger insists. “In addition to which, we now find ourselves in 2019 at a time when our country is facing more complex issues than it was at that time. Politics is a lot more complex.
“It would be a lot easier to put my head in the sand and my fingers in my ears and pretend that nothing was wrong, but I believe my constituents deserve better and the country deserve better. I feel I have done my best to effect change from within.”
One thing seems pretty certain: the breakaway has reduced the chances of an early election. Given the reluctance of the splitters to immediately test their popularity at the ballot box, why should they support any attempts to force a general election via a no confidence motion?
Asked how she would vote in such a scenario, it’s fairly clear that Berger would not support it.
“If you’re talking about one in the coming days before Brexit, I would have to assess that against the backdrop of what the other options were,” she says. “There’s lots of different moving pieces in this chess puzzle that need to be considered. If it means we’re going into an election when concurrently there’s a no deal Brexit, you can’t just look at it in isolation.
“But my record speaks for itself in terms of what I’ve done to challenge this totally inept Conservative government.”
Assuming the next election is in 2022, The Independent Group has three years to establish itself as a force in British politics. The odds are stacked against it, but Luciana Berger is determined to break the mould.