‘The abuse made me physically ill’: Luciana Berger reveals toll of fighting antisemitism while Labour MPs refused to stand by her

Now a Liberal Democrat, the MP is standing in a seat that could deliver a shock win for her party – but says she thought about giving up

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent
Saturday 09 November 2019 19:38 GMT
General Election 2019: What you need to know

Luciana Berger is grinning in the autumn sunshine. The former Labour MP cannot, it seems, stop smiling.

After a torrid few years of relentless abuse that saw six people convicted of criminal offences against her, she joined the Liberal Democrats and appears to have found a new lease of life.

Now, she is standing to be the MP for Finchley and Golders Green – the north London constituency where she lives, is well known and, it seems, well liked.

Out speaking to residents on the first full day of the election campaign, she is warmly welcomed by voters and by her own party activists alike. It is a somewhat new experience for the MP.

“I left behind a very toxic party on every level,” she tells The Independent while out door-knocking. “I attended my last Labour Party meeting in October last year and vowed never to go back because it was so unpleasant – it was so toxic, there was no humanity in the room.

“Being in the Liberal Democrats is so refreshing and so positive. I can have disagreements with people and we do so in an adult way where people don’t shout and scream at you and hurl abuse in your direction.”

The abuse directed at Berger far exceeded the levels that have become the norm for many MPs. The threats to her safety were deemed so severe that she was forced to have a professional security detail accompany her to Labour’s annual conference last year and, on police advice, has had to take a series of measures to protect her and her family.

She is targeted by both the hard left and the far right alike. “I find myself in the middle of different concentric circles,” she says. “I left the Labour Party, I was outspoken in the Labour Party, I’m Jewish, I’m a target of the far right, I’m anti-Brexit – the combination of which means I get more than my fair share.

“I completely understand why there are MPs on all sides of the house, particularly a larger proportion of women, who at this election decided they’re not going to run again, because it has become increasingly ugly.

“When Boris Johnson says ‘humbug’ in response to a very serious intervention about the circumstances we find ourselves in, that’s just appalling, appalling behaviour.”

Asked how bad things got, she struggles to put it into words, admitting that she has had to divorce the emotion from the reality of what she went through. The events of the last few years affected both her mental and physical health.

She says her lowest point came last summer, when she was trying to lobby her fellow Labour MPs to put pressure on the party leadership to do more to tackle antisemitism.

“Last July was the worst, [when I was] in the depths of trying to contend with antisemitism and the abuse that I got for standing up and speaking out about that,” she says. “The amount of energy that it took to co-ordinate made me physically ill. I had pains in my chest, I carried the physical burden of that.”

Of the six people convicted in court of offences against her, four were from the political right and two from the left. Four of them received prison sentences, and more cases may follow.

She recounts the various incidents with a calmness that is almost jarring given what she is describing: images of her head being Photoshopped onto rats and pornographic photos, letters signed by self-declared supporters of her former party leader and delivered to her office by hand, warning that she would be raped, stabbed and covered in acid.

One man who threatened to “put two bullets in the back of her head” was found to be a neo-Nazi who had previously been in prison for manufacturing a pipe bomb. He was later imprisoned again, for almost five years, for possession of terrorist materials relating to firearms and expenses.

On an earlier occasion she was abused in the street by a man who told her: “I f***ing hate Jewish people.”

She says the abuse was regularly dismissed by Labour members in her Liverpool Wavertree constituency, who responded to her recollections by sitting stony-faced and suggesting that she should be more supportive of Jeremy Corbyn.

For all her calmness as she recalls her experiences, the anger is palpable below the surface. Much of it is directed at people in Labour who she thought were her friends but who did little to support her. And despite years of friendship and co-operation, party loyalties were reasserted when she left; some of those she was closest to are now openly campaigning for her Labour opponent.

She admits feeling “very, very lonely” towards the end of her time in Labour. “It’s not just the people that perpetuated what was going on but also colleagues that stood by and weren’t prepared to speak out,” she says. “I think it’s incumbent on all of us in public life to bear that responsibility.”

Now, though, things are better – mostly. She still gets a torrent of abuse on social media each day, but the difference is that it no longer comes from her own side.

And here she is, in a new party and campaigning for a new seat.

Tom Watson: Luciana Berger leaving Labour was 'worst day of shame in Labour's 120-year history'

While she is clearly enjoying the experience, a cursory look at recent results would suggest that there is not much cause for optimism. The Finchley and Golders Green seat has swung back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives for years. The Liberal Democrats have never won more than 17 per cent of the vote in the area. In 2017 the party received just 6.6 per cent.

But there is a whiff of change in the crisp autumn air. On this weekday morning, dozens of activists have turned out to welcome party leader Jo Swinson for a visit to a local mental health charity. Almost 20 stay on for a door-knocking session with Berger. This is not normal in an area where the Lib Dems have traditionally had almost no presence. The mood is upbeat, the reception on the doorstep positive.

And while incumbent Tory MP Mike Freer is popular locally, there is cause to think that an upset might be on the cards. Last month, a poll suggested that the Liberal Democrats are, beyond all expectations, ahead in the constituency. It placed them on 41 per cent, with the Tories and Labour plummeting to 29 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.

There are two reasons for what appears to be a major shift among voters since 2017.

The first is Brexit. Freer is a Tory whip and has voted consistently for both Brexit deals that parliament has been presented with. In a seat that voted 69 per cent for Remain, the Liberal Democrats are heavily targeting pro-EU Conservatives.

“It was his choice to take a ministerial job and to do so in a such a strongly Remain area, there’s going to be response to that,” says Berger of her opponent.

She says many moderate Tories she meets are dismayed by the direction of the Conservatives under Boris Johnson. One of those campaigning for her today says he has backed the Tories for 35 years. He will not do so now, he says, because of Brexit and the “deceit” of the prime minister.

Berger says: “People are just appalled and terrified, genuinely very, very concerned about what the future holds with either Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister or, having got a whiff and a flavour of what a Boris Johnson government would look, they know that is not something they are prepared to countenance.”

The other key issue in this leafy north London suburb is antisemitism. Twenty-three per cent of voters in the constituency are Jewish – the biggest Jewish community of any constituency in the country.

While Labour’s vote share rose slightly in the area in 2017, polls suggest it will plummet this time around, after two more years of controversy over anti-Jewish abuse in the party.

Anger at Corbyn’s response to antisemitism comes up time and time again on the doorstep, and Berger says it is not just Jewish voters who are concerned.

Recalling a taxi ride she had taken that morning, she says: “The cab driver was from Nigeria and lived in Finchley. The first thing he talked about was antisemitism. He said he could never vote for the Labour Party because of that.

“People think, what signal does that send? You’re a party that purports to stand up for equality and anti-racism and yet you treat one group in a different way. People are concerned both on behalf of the Jewish community and because they think, where does this lead?

“If you don’t apply your values of equality equally across the board, people are rightly concerned that one day it could be them.”

One voter who greets Berger enthusiastically on the doorstep says that she has Jewish friends who have talked to her about their fear of a Corbyn-led government. It is one of the main reasons, along with Brexit, why she says she will be switching to the Liberal Democrats.

Boris Johnson arrives at Buckingham Palace to inform Queen of General Election

If Berger wins Finchley and Golders Green for the Lib Dems, it would be a seismic moment both politically and for her personally.

She admits that she thought about not bothering at all. The abuse was so bad that, like a number of female MPs at this election, she considered stepping down.

“It certainly crossed my mind,” she says. “One in four of us will, at any given time, suffer with our mental health and while it’s not me today, it could be me tomorrow.

“I happen to be pretty resilient but maybe I won’t always be and sometimes it’s that last straw that breaks the camel’s back. I’ve certainly had low moments.”

And while things have improved, Berger is wary of celebrating what she thinks should merely be the basic level of decency in politics.

“It’s refreshing but it shouldn’t be refreshing,” she says of her recent experience. “This is how it should be done. This is how politics should be. The fact that it’s not should be concerning to us all.”

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