When Wavertree MP Luciana Berger passes the steps at the back of Central Lobby in the Palace of Westminster, she is able to give a nod to her great-uncle Manny – which is a good trick given that he died in 1986. Manny Shinwell, the famous Red Clydesider, is one of few people who was not a prime minister to have a bust in parliament. “It’s amazing to see that and be part of that heritage,” says Berger, who has read all of her great-uncle’s books. He was also, she points out, the last parliamentarian to throw a punch in the chamber. Shinwell, who was of Polish-Jewish extraction, took exception to a Tory MP telling him to “get back to Poland” and lashed out. “And good for him!” says Berger.
Were he alive, Shinwell would be as proud of his great-niece’s defiance as she is of his, given the scale of antisemitic provocation she, too, has had to endure. Three men have been convicted of abuse against her and there’s even been an international social media campaign – #FilthyJewBitch – organised against her. But that is not the only reason that Berger, who resigned as Labour’s shadow minister for mental health following Brexit, has been targeted. An atmosphere of contempt and violent aggression has recently begun to pervade political discourse. The most extreme illustration of it was the murder of politician Jo Cox, but others have had to endure aggressive and misogynistic intimidation. None more so than Luciana Berger. “It’s a combination of being young, female and Jewish,” she explains.
“Look,” says Berger, who was the director of Labour Friends of Israel for three years before becoming an MP, handing over her phone. She shows me a website which contains a vitriolic catalogue of messages, urging people to tell her – and I can’t even repeat what they call her – that Hitler was right – six million times.
The campaign, organised because antisemites were angry at one of their own being jailed for abusing Berger, has been online since 2014. Could Twitter do more to control it? “Of course they could!” Berger says. The effects of receiving these messages go deep. “It’s personal and sometimes very extreme in its nature. Sometimes it’s pornographic, sometimes violent, often very misogynistic. At its peak, there were 2,500 tweets. Some people who were shown just one message couldn’t believe it, so to receive thousands is difficult.”
But Corbyn’s Labour party has heralded strangely intimidating times, and resulted in new attacks on Berger who is supporting Owen Smith in the current leadership election. Almost half of Labour’s 99 female MPs (including Berger) signed a letter to Corbyn deploring the party’s bullying culture and accusing him of not doing enough to stop threats against women by his supporters. “I’m very worried about the future for women in politics,” admits Berger, who joined parliament in 2010 as one of 64 new Labour MPs – 32 men and 32 women. “It’s definitely got uglier. People feel they have permission to say the most awful things.”
That tone has been evident in recent Labour party mayoral nomination elections across England. It was not just that there was only one female candidate – Berger – across four contests. It was the way she was treated for having the temerity to stand. Berger has kept quiet until the vote but scheduled our final meeting for the day after the result. The nomination has gone to Steve Rotheram, Corbyn’s parliamentary private secretary. Jess Phillips, Labour MP for the Birmingham Yardley, has already posted an acerbic tweet. “All the mayors can now go on an actual man date. We can make the tea.” The responses include calling Phillips “renta gob” and a “stupid woman” – which make her point even more neatly than she does.
The morning of the result, she received messages of support from women who feel she has made a difference, just by seeking nomination in the current climate. One says,: “The way you were treated during the selection process by some was awful so I wanted to thank you for standing.” What was that treatment? “At the start,” she says, “I had a colleague say to me that we already had a contest with the two men, which disgusted and appalled me.”
Following the result, criticism increased. “My campaign manager and I were shouted at by people who should have known better. There was a massive sense of entitlement around the other two candidates’ teams. I was absolutely right to stand – I’d do it all again tomorrow.”
Strange that it was Berger’s experience that was constantly questioned. “The left have a problem with women,” one young (male) party member tells me, while another describes their horror at hearing Berger publicly referred to as “a young pup” by another candidate. Yet she was the only one of the three with shadow cabinet experience. She has two degrees and despite being only 35 has worked at the London stock exchange and BP, and for the Commission for Racial Equality mapping Muslim-Jewish engagement, as well as being a runner at Paramount in America and a debt collector for an American production house. (The English accent worked, apparently.) And Disney, of course.
You have to admire Berger’s courage and tenacity, particularly in the wake of fellow politician Jo Cox’s murder. “I suppose we all think we are untouchable but it means we have to take our security more seriously.” Did it frighten her? “I suppose I have been contending with issues surrounding my safety and security for years.” But what’s going on right now – why have things escalated to such ugly proportions in British politics? “Everything is just so much more polarised, particularly in the wake of Brexit. If you think about the British psyche right now, I saw doctors’ reports of increased presentation of people concerned about their mental health, for instance. Brexit was a prompt, a catalyst for uncertainty.”
To be fair, Berger believes that – unlike misogyny – antisemitism exists more out of the Labour party than in it. But she is still “disappointed” that Shami Chakrabarti’s official report into antisemitism absolved the party completely. “There [was a bit of it] that had no place there unless someone had asked for it.” Did she feel the report was manipulated? “I just didn’t believe that it was independent.” Does she believe Corbyn is manipulative as a leader? “You can’t just look at him in isolation. You have to look at the people who surround him. Incidentally, not many women!”
Corbyn, one party insider tells me, is a puppet in the middle, divided between MPs who don’t think he can lead Labour to victory and party militants who are more interested in the power of opposition than the power of government. It’s an unprecedented catch 22 with accusations of intimidation flying. Did Berger feel there was a murky side to what was happening at Westminster? “Yes, but it was more the ineptitude. I served under Ed Miliband and there was a stark contrast in terms of the professional operation and everything that happened in terms of trying to get a response.”
She remembers the 80s recession and her family not being able to afford a Chinese takeaway. She remembers Thatcher getting to the top and pulling the ladder away, so she makes sure she mentors a woman every year through the Fabian Women’s Network. Small changes can make big differences.