The most prominent Habs’ Girl in British politics is Luciana Berger: elected as the MP for Liverpool Wavertree in 2010 and winner of The Jo Cox Memorial Award for Bravery and Heroism. In 2019 she quit the Labour Party in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s “repeated failure to address hatred against Jewish people (much directed at her personally) within its ranks.”

After a short time as the co-founder of The Independent Group (later Change UK), she stood as the Lib Dem candidate for Finchley and Golders Green in the 2019 General Election. Whilst she increased the Lib Dem vote considerably, the swing wasn’t enough for her to be elected. Last year, she joined global communications firm, Edelman UK, to lead its advocacy and public affairs team.

Luciana was born in London and brought up in Wembley. She attended Habs between 1992 and 1999. When I interviewed her by Zoom, it seemed fitting to ask her first about her time at Habs. What did she like most about the school? “Of course, the education was very important, but I liked all the additional activities as well”, she says. She participated in a number of school plays and, she adds, “I was very much involved in charity days and Duke of Edinburgh, so I coordinated visits to the local old people’s home and was in charge of the Mencap Fun Day”. For A-Levels she did Religious Studies, Spanish and Economics; she then went on to study Commerce with Spanish at Birmingham University.

Her eyes lit up when I asked her which teacher most inspired her at Habs. She answered enthusiastically, that the then head of Sixth Form, Patrick Moriarty was “very inspirational”. She remains in contact with Rev. Moriarty, who, unusually, is now both an Anglican priest and the headmaster of the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS).

It was through student politics that Luciana first immersed herself in politics – she “got involved in the Student Union at Birmingham University”. Politics runs in her family: her great-uncle was the trade union official and Labour MP Lord Shinwell, who was the Secretary of State for War in the Attlee government. Like his great-niece, Shinwell, who was from a Polish-Jewish background, had to confront anti-Semitism during his political career. He responded to a taunt by a Conservative MP that he should “get back to Poland” by punching him, so becoming the last MP to fight in Parliament. Shinwell died at the age of 101 in 1986, when Luciana was just five.

After standing in separate student elections for 13 different posts, Luciana went on to serve for two years on the NUS’s National Executive. “Through all these responsibilities”, she says, “I had an exposure to a representative role”. This gave her a taste of her future political career.

When Luciana told me, she joined the Labour Party at the end of her first year at university, I asked her why she decided to do so. Luciana replied strongly, stating she “was drawn to everything the party did around campaigning for equality – which was very important to me”. Luciana says she particularly ascribed to the principle that “We all achieve more together than we do alone, and that was one of the core values of the Labour Party”. A passionate campaigner against injustice and prejudice, Luciana co-chaired the NUS Anti-Racism and Anti-Fascism Campaign between 2003 and 2005.

After completing a part-time master’s degree in Government, Politics and Policy at Birkbeck, University of London, she was elected to Parliament at the 2010 election with 50.3% of the vote. Luciana was subsequently Shadow Minister for Climate Change – during which she was critical of the Government’s failure sufficiently to promote a pro-environmental business agenda – and in September 2015 was appointed Shadow Minister for Mental Health. She is proud of campaigning for mental health, an issue on which she made clear to me that she feels strongly. “We’ve all got mental health in the same way that we have physical health”, she pointed out, noting that in the past mental health was treated very differently – it was something to be ashamed of. There were, she says “discrimination and taboos around discussing mental health”.

I asked Luciana whether she has any advice for Habs students about mental health issues that may have arisen during lockdown. “While we’ve all got certain levels of resilience”, she replied, “a lot of challenges are being placed on many people. Don’t be too hard on yourself and take time out to do the things that really matter for your health and well-being.”

She resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in June 2016 in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. When asked whether it was daunting standing up against anti-Semitism, Luciana said in a steely manner, “Whenever I see injustice and things need to be spoken out about, I do so”. This strong sense of mind has clearly been mirrored in her resolute stance against injustice. I asked if she was surprised at how little Jeremy Corbyn and other leading Labour politicians tried to protect her from the virulently anti-Semitic abuse that she received. Luciana referred to the recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, saying that it “really shone a spotlight on the lack of actions from the leadership of the Labour Party to know that it wasn’t right”. The EHRC inquiry found Labour responsible for breaking the law. On a more positive note, Luciana commented: “I look forward to the time when Labour turns itself around and returns to the values that led me to join it in the first place.”

What was she proudest of in her political career? “Leading the campaign that saw smoking banned in cars when children are sat in the back”. Luciana, who featured in the 2019 Vogue 25 – a list of 25 “high-powered and visionary women whose work is shaping Britain’s future” – created a film in 2012 called Breadline Britain about food poverty.

Before Covid-19, Luciana was a big campaigner to remain in the European Union: she strongly opposed Brexit and supported a ‘People’s Vote’ – a policy not backed by the Labour Party. She points out that Britain is only now facing the consequences of leaving the EU.

I concluded the interview by asking Luciana: “What do you think is the biggest challenge facing Britain following the Covid-19 Pandemic?” “Winding levels of inequality – we’re seeing an increase in the difference between the rich and the poor. Preparation for a pandemic which had previously been prioritised in scenario-planning had been deprioritised.” For example, there was not enough PPE or ventilators. However, she ended our Zoom conversation more positively: “Efforts to vaccinate the country have fared very well – 20 million have been vaccinated as of 2 March. The vaccine roll-out will enable the economy and society to return to normalcy”.

Gavriella Epstein-Lightman (Lower 5)

(Photo by Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61321499)