The resignation of UK Labour’s most prominent Jewish MP has reignited the long-simmering row over anti-Semitism in Britain’s main opposition party.
Luciana Berger has been the face of the battle against Jew-hate in Jeremy Corbyn’s party. Her decision Monday to quit Labour – alongside six fellow MPs – and become members of the newly formed Independent Group in parliament is sure to lead to new questions about how the once-close relationship between the center-left party and Britain’s Jews became so toxic. It also poses the most serious challenge to Corbyn’s repeated claims that he takes the issue seriously.
Berger, at the forefront of Monday’s resignations, made Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis the centerpiece of her brief statement. Her former party, she said, was now “institutionally anti-Semitic.” A number of the other quitting MPs – whose ranks included one-time Shadow Cabinet members Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna – also made clear that they couldn’t remain in a party which they now regard as “racist [and] anti-Semitic.”
The resignation of the youthful Berger represents a particular threat to Corbyn because of her political persona. She is hardly a political rebel and it will be difficult for Corbyn’s defenders to cast her as a right-winger who has always been intent on destroying his leadership.
After she entered parliament in 2010 at the age of just 28, Berger endorsed and voted for Ed Miliband, the candidate of the party’s soft left, rather than his Blairite brother David. She thrived under the victorious Miliband and, had he become prime minister in 2015, is sure to have been rewarded with a ministerial office and a seat in the Cabinet.
Despite being director of Labour Friends of Israel immediately prior to entering parliament, Berger has also largely avoided association with contentious Middle East issues, quietly supporting the Jewish state but rarely joining the band of Labour MPs who vocally defend it in divisive Commons debates.
Indeed, her alleged silence provoked mutterings of discontent from some in the community. Instead, she kept her focus squarely on domestic politics and her constituency in the northwestern city of Liverpool, with her campaign on the issue of mental health winning her plaudits.
When Corbyn was elected leader, she also chose, unlike many moderate Labour MPs, to serve in his Shadow Cabinet. Months later, however, she joined the exodus of MPs attempting to unseat the hard-left leader.
As a high-profile young Jewish woman, Berger has been a particular magnet for anti-Semitism since she entered the Commons.
In 2014, for instance, a member of the neo-Nazi National Action organization — which was banned after the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016 — was jailed for sending Berger an anti-Semitic tweet. Following the verdict, she swiftly became a target for anti-Semitic trolls, with the police telling her that she had received 2,500 “hate messages” in just three days at the height of the attacks.
More abuse and more convictions followed over the next three years. One far-right activist received a two-year prison sentence following what was described as a “vitriolic” campaign of anti-Semitic abuse against Berger in which she was branded “evil” and a “filthy Jew bitch” and compared to a rat.
Berger told the trial she had feared for her safety and “felt sick” when she read the series of articles about her posted on a neo-Nazi website. Another anti-Semitic troll was jailed for sending Berger death threats in which he said she would meet the same fate as Cox.
Throughout her ordeal, Berger displayed a poise and dignity that became the hallmark of her effort to encourage other victims to come forward and force social media companies to do more to crack down on online abuse.
But Berger’s journey out of the Labour Party did not truly begin until just under a year ago, when she was the first of Corbyn’s MPs to demand an explanation as to why he had defended a 2012 anti-Semitic mural in London’s East End.
I asked the Leader’s Office for an explanation about this Facebook post first thing this morning. I’m still waiting for a response. pic.twitter.com/DL8ynBtES4
— Luciana Berger (@lucianaberger) March 23, 2018
The revelation about the mural was the catalyst for the unprecedented “Enough is Enough” demonstration against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party which took place in Parliament Square three days later. Once again, Berger was at the forefront of the protests. Having previously been targeted by the far right, she was soon to experience firsthand the full force of the hard left’s own brand of anti-Semitism.
Within days, Berger was forced to call the police after receiving what she described as “a torrent of abuse from people purporting to be of the left.”
Threats that she would be deselected, warnings that the pro-Corbyn Momentum group would be “watching” her, and accusations that she was a “paid-up Israeli lobby operative” engaging in “faux anti-Semite outrage” were at the gentler end of the scale.
Other messages suggested she kill herself so that “an actual Labour MP can take your place.”
Some Corbyn allies suggested that the abuse Berger and others was receiving was from Conservatives posing as backers of the Labour leader. Others argued that the number of genuine cases of anti-Semitism in the party could be counted “on the fingers of one hand.”
But these responses appeared only to strengthen Berger’s resolve not to back down. Speaking in a parliamentary debate on anti-Semitism following the “Enough is Enough” protest, she declared: “I make no apology for holding my party to higher standards. One anti-Semitic member of the Labour Party is one anti-Semitic member too many.”
“Anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is more commonplace, it is more conspicuous and it is more corrosive,” she argued. Berger’s speech elicited a rare standing ovation in the chamber, and Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, left his seat on the frontbench to sit next to her and other Jewish Labour MPs as they recounted the abuse they had received from members of their own party.
Berger proceeded to declare last June that she had “no faith” in the party’s ability to fight anti-Semitism, after a left-wing lawyer and ally of Jeremy Corbyn was appointed to oversee it.
Little that has happened in the following nine months — the row last July over the party’s initial refusal to adopt in full the International Holocaust Alliance Remembrance definition of anti-Semitism and the summer of revelations about Corbyn’s alleged links to terrorists, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers — altered Berger’s view.
In September, she lashed the “sickening summer of anti-Semitism” that had afflicted Labour and said the party was now “unrecognizable” from the one under whose colors she was first elected in 2010. Berger also dropped a heavy hint that she was considering how long she could remain in it.
“Ultimately it is for the leadership to decide if they want to drive the center-left tradition, one that I proudly identify with, out of the party,” she told the Jewish Chronicle. “I’m the same person as when I was elected in 2010 and I’m still standing up for the same things I have always believed in … But many of us are being made to feel unwelcome in our own party.”
On social media, Corbyn supporters accused Berger of “disgracefully smearing” the Labour leader and suggested that, despite photographic evidence, it was a “lie” that she had received police protection.
By autumn, the depth of the breach between Berger and her party was clear. When it held its annual gathering in Liverpool, the city she represents in parliament, Berger was given police protection. This is unusual; with Britain’s relatively open, violence-free political system, only a few senior Cabinet ministers have bodyguards. Backbench MPs, such as Berger, do not.
Unwilling to admit that Berger might be a target for its own hard left activists, Labour attempted to explain away the police’s decision by pointing to the previous threats from the far right she had faced.
On social media, Corbyn supporters accused Berger of “disgracefully smearing” the Labour leader and suggested that, despite photographic evidence, it was a “lie” that she had received police protection. The MP responded: “I thought I joined a movement that believes in solidarity for all. Clearly not.”
It was later revealed that Labour had failed to inform Berger or the police about threats against her which were contained in a dossier of abuse by party members which had been compiled by officials. The dossier’s contents only came to light when a whistle-blower handed it to a London radio station.
The police considered the threats — such as one member posting on Facebook “Zionist Extremist MP Luciana Berger, who hates civilised people, about [to] get a good kicking!” — serious enough to open a criminal investigation.
Even when Berger attempted to discuss topics other than anti-Semitism, she faced waves of abuse from the hard left.
In December, the MP came under fire from Corbyn-backing activists when she reiterated her support for a second referendum on Brexit (a position that the anti-European Labour leader opposes). Their tweets referred to her as “the member for Liverpool Haifa,” an “Israeli shill” and “an absolute traitor to the Labour Party and to the work[ing] class.”
But it was the events of the past few weeks that appear to have been the final straw for Berger.
On the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day last month, it was announced that Labour had readmitted without punishment a former MP it suspended last August who had said that he had lost “respect and empathy for the Jewish community and their historic suffering … due to what they and their Blairite plotters are doing to my party.” Berger described the decision and its timing as “so hurtful.”
That decision sparked Labour MPs to overwhelmingly pass a motion demanding the leadership “adequately tackle cases of anti-Semitism” and warning that a “failure to do so seriously risks anti-Semitism in the party appearing normalized and the party seeming to be institutionally anti-Semitic.”
At a fraught and angry meeting of the parliamentary party the following week Labour’s general secretary, Corbyn ally Jennie Formby, provoked outrage by reportedly telling MPs it was “impossible to eradicate” anti-Semitism and it would be “dishonest to claim to be able to do so.”
Days later, it was revealed that members of Berger’s local party had proposed a motion of no-confidence in her. “Instead of fighting for a Labour government, our MP is continually using the media to criticise the man we all want to be prime minister,” their motion read.
While Watson and many of her fellow MPs expressed their support for Berger, Corbyn’s closest and most powerful political ally, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, struck a different tone.
“Luciana has been associated in the media with a break away party… the media have asked her to deny that and she hasn’t been clear on that. So, my advice on all of this is for Luciana to just put this issue to bed,” McDonnell told the media.
Watson’s requests that her local party — which he accused of “bullying and hatred” — be suspended were reportedly refused by Formby.
The no confidence motion was later withdrawn, but McDonnell’s comments, say Berger’s friends, illustrate the lack of support she has received from the leadership throughout her ordeal.
“They’ve never shown any solidarity to her,” said one. However painful and frightening the abuse that Berger has received from far-right anti-Semites, the feeling of abandonment by her own “political family” is said to have hurt her particularly deeply.
Other MPs may now follow the lead of those who quit Monday, but their numbers are likely to be small, with some prominent Corbyn critics — such as Jewish Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge, who tweeted her intention to “to stay and fight for the values, principles and soul of the party that was the natural home for Jews when I joined 57 years ago” — already indicating they’re staying put.
For far too long many of us have put up with intolerable & unprecedented antisemitic abuse from the hard left. But with my Jewish colleagues I want to stay and fight for the values, principles and soul of the party that was the natural home for Jews when I joined 57 years ago 3/3
— Margaret Hodge (@margarethodge) February 18, 2019
Disgruntled moderates have debated their dilemma — can they remain in a party led by Corbyn? — for months. Some believe that, as in the 1980s, they will eventually have the opportunity to wrest the party back from the clutches of the hard left and begin the long process of rebuilding the shattered trust of the Jewish community.
Moreover, they fear that any breakaway would meet the same fate as the short-lived Social Democratic party. After its launch by right-wing Labour MPs in 1981, the party — which attracted a number of Jewish converts and adopted a pro-Israel line — briefly soared in the polls before failing to achieve a significant electoral breakthrough and eventually merging with the Liberal party.
Others contend that such parallels are not exact. In the early 1980s, the hard left never managed to seize control of the Labour leadership and the party machinery in the manner that it has done over the past three years.
The powerful unions, which helped drag the party back to the center ground in the 1980s, are now largely in the hands of Corbyn allies. The chances of the moderates being able to retake control of Labour are thus said to be bleak. Moreover, voters’ inbred loyalties to parties has weakened considerably over the past three decades.
This arguably makes the prospects of a new insurgent party aimed squarely at the country’s overwhelmingly centrist electorate much rosier than they were when the SDP attempted to, as it put it at the time, “break the mold” of British politics.
For Berger it appears, however, the time for talking is past. Instead, she’s voted with her feet.
Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”