Luciana Berger’s Diary: Saying goodbye to Labour, outpourings of support and pineapple pitta at Nando’s

In the year since British Jews protested outside parliament against racism in Labour, things have got worse, not better.

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Leaving Labour has been a seismic and significant moment in my life, which I am still processing. It has not been easy. The blend of emotions I am starting to feel now is relief, excitement and gratitude. In the Independent Group, we have the seeds of a new political movement that can reinvent our broken politics and provide a home to people who are politically homeless. When I stood up on Monday 18 February to announce that I and my six colleagues were going independent, I heard myself say “I am the Labour…” before realising I would never be saying “I am the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree” ever again. I must have said it thousands of times, but no more.

I’ve since discovered that there was much speculation before the press conference about the presence of a stool at the back of the stage – it might have been left empty for another MP to join us, the theory went. No, it was for me: at 37 weeks pregnant, it was in case I couldn’t continue standing.

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The excitement I feel is based on what is possible in the future. We are living through one of the most exciting periods of human history. The technological revolution has the potential to liberate us or enslave us, and the road we take will depend on our politics. And yet our political system is stuck in the 20th century. We need a new kind of politics that reflects not only the immediate crisis over Brexit, but also the big challenges of automation, artificial intelligence, global warming and trade justice. I hope this will be the start of something new and exciting.

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The relief I feel stems from no longer identifying with a party that is hostile to Jewish people, has been failing on Brexit and is letting the Tories off the hook. It’s exactly 20 years since Sir William Macpherson published his report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. On Macpherson’s definition – “processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping” – I believe the Labour Party is institutionally racist, and I am glad to be out of it.

Parliament debated anti-Semitism on 20 February. In the year since British Jews protested outside parliament against racism in Labour, things have got worse, not better. People with #JC4PM in their bios target Jewish Labour MPs, councillors and active members with the worst kind of images and language. And yet, the party’s leadership has stood idly by.

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When I appeared on the Andrew Marr Show, alongside my new Independent Group colleague Heidi Allen MP (formerly a Conservative MP), I made the point that it was less than 100 hours after we had joined together. This is early days.

We are just forming our parliamentary group, and deciding how we will work together. A new party may be formed down the line. Andrew Marr tried a quick-fire series of policy questions, like a political Mr & Mrs. As I emphasised, we had only been in existence for less than a week.

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I am extremely grateful to all of the people who have offered their support. It has been a week of hugs, tears, soul-searching and confessionals, and that’s just from my former Labour colleagues. Not everyone was pleased – one message I received suggested I should stay at home and be a good house-wife. On BBC Radio 4’s Profile, my dear brother Alex revealed that I was a whizz with the diabolo. I never anticipated my circus skills would be exposed on national media, and had a flurry of tweets asking “what’s a diabolo?” (Think of it like a giant yo-yo.)

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One of our ambitions as independents is to alter our political culture. We want to leave behind the bullying, intimidation and tribalism. The vicious reaction of some Labour MPs proves our point. The air has been filled with words such as “scab”, “traitor” and “betrayal”. The shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, talked about crushing us. This kind of old politics really puts people off, and certainly says more about the people shouting the insults than those on the receiving end.

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Who knew a group of MPs eating in a casual dining restaurant would be so interesting? On 25 February we did the serious business of holding a meeting to agree membership of the 11 founders of the Independent Group and to adopt our values, cultural commitments and standing orders.

We then managed to get out of the Westminster bubble and squeeze in a cheeky Nando’s. After a mega week, it was really lovely just to enjoy a meal together. Twitter was awash with speculation about who ate what. I can reveal that my order was a medium hot pitta with pineapple, plus a corn on the cob and peri peri chips on the side (very revealing, no doubt). There was an entertaining moment when Mike Gapes and Chuka Umunna’s “sunset burgers” got mixed up and Mike insisted they swap back to the correct order. Mike was keen to point out that he had selected a spicier burger (extra hot). We then dashed back to parliament to vote on one of hundreds of statutory instruments that have to be passed before Brexit is legally even possible.

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Amid all the drama, life has carried on and it was good to be home in Liverpool at the end of the week. Very soon, perhaps by the time you read this, I will have given birth to our second child. If we needed any reminder that politics is about the future, then surely it is the entry of a new life into the world.

Luciana Berger is the Change UK Member of Parliament for Liverpool Wavetree

This article appears in the 01 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit broke politics