Luciana Berger: ‘Would I return to politics? Never say never’

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Luciana Berger: ‘Would I return to politics? Never say never’

EXCLUSIVE: In her first post-Westminster interview, Luciana Berger discusses her new career, family life, antisemitism and Labour’s failure to make its mark under Keir Starmer.

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Luciana Berger during a press conference at which she announced her resignation from the Labour Party. (Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
Luciana Berger during a press conference at which she announced her resignation from the Labour Party. (Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)

Reflecting on almost a decade spent as an MP and the events surrounding her departure from the Labour Party, Luciana Berger insists she has no regrets.

Now blossoming once more in a senior role at the global communications firm Edelman, the Wembley-born former shadow cabinet minister said she had “absolutely no regrets” over her decision to leave the Labour Party – a move which ended her high-profile political career.

Berger, who turned 40 earlier this month, also spoke of the “massive change”, as she began her job with the leading public relations company from home while lockdown regulations during the pandemic were at their highest level.

She also spoke openly of her and husband Alistair Goldsmith’s pride at ensuring their two children, Amélie, four, and Zion, two, grow up with a “strong Jewish identity.”

We met up for the exclusive Jewish News interview at a coffee shop only a short distance away from the Edelman office in central London.

In the most unlikely of scenarios the firm shares the very same large office block as Labour, the political party that Berger so famously walked out on in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s failure on antisemitism.

Luciana Berger at the Enough is Enough demonstration, campaigning with Hugh Grant for the Lib Dems, with former leader Jo Swinson, and with former Jewish and non-Jewish Labour colleagues outside a party disciplinary hearing for a suspended member.

The former Labour MP said she was keen to fully return to office work as soon as social distancing regulations allowed, not least because 10 months after starting her new job, she still has to meet many of her colleagues at Edelman in person.

It was “a bit unusual at first” Berger said of working in the same building as Labour Party HQ.  She has bumped into former general secretary Lord Iain McNicol, but hasn’t yet seen any Labour MPs or party staffers.

“Some days I come in and there are television cameras outside, like there were during the week of the most recent local elections,” said Berger. “The journalists look at me, and they are a bit confused.”

First elected as the MP for Liverpool Wavertree back in 2010, I suggest it must have been unsettling leaving behind a politician’s job in the manner Berger did in the last election.

“Anyone that does something they are passionate about for close to a decade would find the transition out a journey,” she says. “I was in a role that was more than a job, it was my passion, it was my vocation, it was an enormous privilege and responsibility to be an MP, I lived and breathed it every minute.

“On top of that, I had to say goodbye to Liverpool, the city that had been my home for ten years, coupled with a pandemic, and looking after very young children (then aged one and three).”

Back in February 2019, when she famously announced that she was resigning from Labour after branding the party “institutionally antisemitic” Berger was hailed by all sections of the Jewish community as a heroine, or indeed even a mensch.

Fast forward just a few months, and after announcing she would take on the sitting Tory MP Mike Freer in Finchley and Golders Green, for the Liberal Democrats and Berger was subjected to the most vicious taunts, some from members of her own community for daring to stand against a politician who they sided with.

She will not discuss the slurs, or those who made them. But of her decision to contest a seat that she failed to win, she is adamant: “I would do it all again. I stand by every single decision I made – they were absolutely the right decisions.”

Emphasising her point she adds: “I don’t regret the stand I took. The decision I made to leave the Labour Party, I’d do that again.

“Some people said it was a brave thing to do. But that’s only because there were just a handful of us that made that decision. I knew that in good faith, at any future election, I could not go and knock on doors and ask people to vote for me, and by extension possibly get that guy (Jeremy Corbyn), into Number 10. I was also so grateful for the opportunity to stand in Finchley and Golders Green. I am proud of my record, from the laws I was able to influence and change from opposition, particularly in the field of mental health. The difference I made to thousands of my constituents during my ten years, locally and nationally.”

I don’t regret the stand I took. The decision I made to leave the Labour Party, I’d do that again

We discuss the immediate aftermath of her election defeat. A sad time for Berger, her family, and those who knew how much to have put into political life.

“I didn’t prepare myself,” Berger admits.

“An election campaign is all-consuming. We built the campaign more or less from scratch. There were so many good people involved. We were focussed on winning.”

Hugh Grant canvassing with (right) Liberal Democrat candidate for Finchley and Golders Green, Luciana Berger (Credit: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire)

While she did not win the seat, the result showed Berger had taken the local Lib Dem vote from just 3,463 at the previous 2017 election to 17,600 this time around.

For a defeated MP the move out of Westminster is “brutal”, Berger says.

There is the on-going case-work to hand over to your successor, the data protection responsibilities, and the need to tell the team who previously worked for you as an MP that they are being made redundant.

“Parliament put up signs saying ‘Welcome to the non-returning members centre’,” she recalls of the day she had to move out of her Westminster office. “And then I had to pack up my home and say goodbye to Liverpool.”

Berger talks with deep affection for Liverpool, the city from which it appeared that she received a lot of the antisemitic hate directed towards her during her latter days as the Wavertree MP.

I knew that in good faith, at any future election, I could not go and knock on doors and ask people to vote for me, and by extension possibly get that guy (Jeremy Corbyn), into Number 10

But she points out it was the city she was “privileged to represent”,  in which she met her husband, where their two children were born, and where she still has so many memories of the good friendships she made.

The antisemitism she received came from “a very specific, tiny element”, says Berger.

“The overwhelming majority of my friends, my neighbours, and constituents are warm, generous people.

“I count it as an honour to be called, as some have said, an ‘honorary Scouser’.

“Liverpool will always hold a special place. It is a proud city of outsiders, with a strong history of many different waves of immigration.

“The unsavoury elements were confined to the far left and to the far right in wider Merseyside.

“I will always take my children back to Liverpool, we will be there often as my husband is a massive Red (a Liverpool FC fan).”

MPs Margaret Hodge (second left), Jess Phillips (third left) , Luciana Berger (second right) and Dame Louise Ellman (right) at a demonstration outside a Labour party disciplinary hearing
Photo credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Berger admits she is alarmed by the current rise of antisemitism in response to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

“It has been utterly horrible and feels insurmountable,” she says, as she praises the vital role played by the Community Security Trust in these turbulent times.

She says that “moderate voices need to be louder” at the moment. “People with platforms need to stop stoking this and that means informed, responsible discourse.”

The halt to a parliamentary career did hold some benefits though.

No more long car journeys each week between her home in Golders Green and her constituency home with two young kids.

And unlike in 2017, when daughter Amélie was born, Berger would not have to jump straight back into election campaign mode.

She has also enjoyed spending more time with family and friends. “I’ve loved being able to see so much more of my close friends and family this past year, albeit mostly outdoors on long walks.”

She praises her husband for being a “brilliant dad” and she reveals how she has taken on more childcare than she did while an MP.

“I do a lot more nursery pick-ups and drop offs, which is a particularly joyful element of my day,” smiles Berger.

“During the first lockdown, I found myself thrust into the role of head of home nursery. I thought it was going to be a breeze – little did I know how challenging it would be. Thank goodness for Golders Hill Park.

“I came out of that period with every admiration for our early years professionals who do such a remarkable job. “

Former Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson (left) is greeted by the then party’s candidate for Finchley and Golders Green Luciana Berger (Credit: Aaron Chown/PA Wire)

Berger, who is a vice-president of the Jewish Leadership Council and attends all their meetings, and also contributes to the mental-health task force for Jewish schools, remains dedicated to wider commitments to the community.

A member of a shul in north London she says that having attended pre-Shabbat services on Zoom, “it is just not the same as being inside a synagogue building, as part of an in-person congregation.”

Friday nights are important at home, says Berger. “Amélie, my daughter, gets very upset if she doesn’t get challah,” she adds. “We’ve also taken great pleasure in teaching her how to say the Shabbat prayers. Chanukah was meaningful last year. There was something particularly uplifting seeing both the children take part whilst we were in the midst of terribly challenging times.”

In September, mum also reveals that Amélie will be starting out at a local Jewish primary school whose “ethos and values” she and Alistair share. Music executive Goldsmith is enjoying career success in his partnership with established manager Jonathan Shalit and their venture Chosen Music.

Luciana Berger named her son Zion Benjamin Manny Goldsmith (Luciana Berger on Instagram)

The pair have scored several top 10 hit records so far, most recently with the signing of the artist Nathan Evans and the biggest British song of the year Wellerman.

Six months after her election defeat Berger set out on a new career path herself landing the role of managing director of the public affairs and advocacy practice at Edelman UK. She leads a team who help clients in the food and drink, renewables and technology sectors with their government relations. It was “a massive change, amplified by the fact that I started in lockdown,”  she says of the new lifestyle “It’s fair to say I am not a work from home enthusiast” says Berger, of the lockdown Zoom conversations that have dominated her role so far.

She says she has been “one of the first back” into the office because she likes to be around people. I get to work with some brilliant colleagues, including some of the best creatives. I thrive in this environment.”

The Edelman London team have been named one the world’s top 10 “best and bravest” agencies by industry experts following campaigns including IKEA’s #BuyBackFriday.

More recently, she has also been appointed as a non-executive director of Cazoo, where she will join the Board of the online car retailer and become chair of its Environment, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) Committee ahead of a £5billion US merger later this summer.

“If you think about online markets – we all expect to buy our groceries, books, clothes via the internet.” says Berger. “Around two per cent of vehicles are currently bought on-line and with a £500bn market across the UK and EU, car buying is ripe for digital disruption. During the pandemic it was a nightmare to try to change our car the traditional way. There is a massive untapped market and Cazoo has already proved consumers will buy online.”

As for the Labour Party, under Sir Keir Starmer, Berger says they “are struggling to hold the government to account and make a mark.” She also confirms when asked that she has not had a conversation with Starmer, nor any senior Labour party representative, since the day before the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report into antisemitism was published in October.

Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer REUTERS/Yves Herman

Berger does not place all the blame on the new Labour leader for the failure to cut through during the pandemic. “It has been a very challenging time for politics per se,” she says. “Politics can’t be done properly as in normal times. That puts any opposition party at a disadvantage. In the same way I reflect on my own recent experience, it is the same for politics. People can’t come together or discuss things in the same way.”

Berger says the performance of Boris Johnson’s government will be properly appraised when the official enquiry into his handling of the pandemic takes place. “We all have very short-term memories,” she says, reflecting also on the UK’s success with the vaccine roll-out.

She praises the UK’s scientists, medical workforce and civil servants who are doing  a “remarkable job.” “Compared to our European neighbours, and I know this from my work, the delivery of our vaccination programme is streets ahead,” she adds. “We overlook the year of pain we’ve experienced up until this moment.”

Berger confirms she remains a member of the Lib Dems, but has actively decided not to engage in any party political activity since the election. “I’m taking some time out.” As for a possible return, one day, to frontline politics herself?

Berger says it’s a question she gets asked all of the time, most recently on a break in the Cotswolds with a friend to celebrate her 40th, when they bumped into two “lovely” residents of Finchley and Golders Green on a country walk.  “Who knows what the future holds?” she adds. “I’m really happy where I am now. But never say never.”

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