The former Labour MP who left the party after sustained antisemitic bullying, Luciana Berger, says she believes British politics to be in a “perilous” state and that she “couldn’t be responsible for facilitating getting Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street”.
In an unusually frank discussion with Richard Verber, communications director of the United Synagogue, Ms Berger also ruled out following in the path of her colleague Chuka Umuna, who, after a time in the Change Party with her, had left to go on to join the Liberal Democrats. Ms Berger said she could not be sure that in the future, if there were to be a general election, that the Lib Dems would not join a Corbyn-led coalition with Labour.
Speaking to a packed audience at Finchley Synagogue as part of its “Our Friends in Westminster” lecture series, Ms Berger, who now sits as the Independent MP for Liverpool Wavertree — where she had a 29,466 majority at the last election — said she believed that politics “needed to be done in a different way.” She applauded a recent rule change which had allowed for proxy votes so that MPs with young families could get home at a reasonable time to see their children, and spoke of how she had previously had to take her first child, her daughter Amelie, into Parliament for votes which did not begin till 10 pm. “This is not conducive to a normal family life”, she said.
But the MP began her remarks by warning that being in Parliament was “not a job for life”. She said that holding public office was a responsibility and a privilege, and that attitudes to public service needed to change.
Ms Berger was speaking in the aftermath of the BBC Panorama programme screened on Wednesday which had asked if the Labour Party were “institutionally antisemitic”. The MP, still on maternity leave with her second child, Zion, now four months old, said she had thought initially that things might change after the March 2018 Enough is Enough rally outside Parliament.
But she had now come to the conclusion, she said, that there was “complicity at the highest level” and that “there had been countless opportunities to do things differently”. She believed, therefore, that “a choice” had been made not to deal with antisemitism in the party.
Asked by Mr Verber and members of the audience whether she regarded Mr Corbyn as antisemitic, the MP would say only “the facts speak for themselves”. But she drew both laughter and applause when she revealed that her programme of choice last summer, during the height of antisemitic abuse against her, had been “Love Island”, which she said was her “escape route from the every day. Love Island saved me”.
Ms Berger had been interviewed for the Panorama programme, she said, but the fact that her contribution was not used pointed, she felt, to the much greater scale of the problem. She also revealed that she had been asked — but had declined — to work on the Chakrabarti Report into antisemitism in the Labour Party, widely derided as a “whitewash”. She had had doubts about the Chakrabarti inquiry from the beginning, she said. “I’m very pleased I was not involved”.
It was announced that Ms Berger and some colleagues were leaving the political party of Change UK in order to sit separately as part of an independent group in the Commons. She made it clear that she had not wanted to leave Labour for an as yet unformed political party, but that Change had made that decision as a result of the unexpected European elections. She acknowledged that sitting as an Independent MP was difficult, not least because she did not have the support of a party structure.
But, she said, “it is incumbent on all Labour MPs to stand up and speak out” about antisemitism in the Party and the way in which the leadership was dealing with it. What was “troubling”, Ms Berger said, was that “there are too many who can’t or won’t, who are thinking first and foremost about their re-election”.