Luciana Berger on having to work harder than the rest

Written by Rob Wilson on 28 May 2012 in Interview
Interview
The shadow energy minister talks to Rob Wilson about great schools, Ferry ‘cross the Mersey, and how learning about hard grafting from an early age has informed her politics

This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics

Luciana Berger is a grafter. If, in the manner of the Tudor Queen Mary, you were to see her heart, you would probably see the words “commitment” or “hard work” inscribed there.

There is no doubt that she is a serious woman: serious about her politics, her causes and her constituency. She displays, it seems, an admirable seriousness and dedication towards everything she does, which stands in stark contrast to how she is often portrayed in the media – rather more fluffy and frivolous. That’s not the Berger I’m talking to.

Berger is a young high flier in Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Within five months of the May 2010 general election she became shadow climate change minister, part of a young and reinvigorated frontbench team. An extraordinary rise to a senior opposition frontbench position, it shows she has already earned a high level of esteem and trust from senior colleagues within the party. She has set about her role with determination, and is currently the longest serving member of the shadow energy and climate change team. She has already made a difference – which I’ll come to later.

 As with most of us, her thoughtful, thorough character can be traced to her formative years, which latterly, at university, were not always as happy as they could or should have been. She grew up in “a small house in Wembley”, within earshot of the stadium, in what she describes a “political street” – an Islington-in-miniature, with lots of “very passionate people who now work in and around politics”.

She affirms that her parents were not particularly political, though Berger’s ancestry is not without political blood. Her great-uncle was Labour MP Manny (Lord) Shinwell, first elected in 1922, who served as a minister in Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee’s governments, reaching the cabinet as secretary of state for war in the latter. Berger describes how her family would watch the news and “discuss the issues of the day”, but not in a party-political way.

Her mum’s side of the family have run a small retail business – carpets, curtains, fabric and interior furnishings – for 80 years. Berger’s father joined the business after studying law at university and spending time practising as a solicitor.

While the family home is in Wembley, the shop is in now politically trendy Notting Hill, formerly home to David and Sam Cameron (before No 10 Downing Street). One wonders whether they might have bought the odd cushion from the Berger family business?

The shop, still run on traditional values, offers a personal tailored service to its customers. “It’s for people who want anything done, from small jobs to large jobs, whether they want a cushion made, a blind or a stretch tapestry. The staff members are skilled in the older trades,” Berger says proudly. “There are not many people who can cane any more, or who can stretch tapestries and make them into cushions or wall hangings. My dad still has all his notes hand-written. People will come in 10 years later, and my dad will remember them and bring out his notes on dimensions.”

Much dedication and hard work goes into building a retail business, and from a young age she has followed her parents’ example. At weekends, she would tour the markets of Northamptonshire with her grandfather, selling women’s coats, skirts and dresses. She remembers being “really good” at market trading – which may surprise some of her Westminster colleagues.

But her claim is confirmed by her performance when working in Regent Street’s Disney Store, when aged 17 to 18, where “I was pre-sale queen. I sold the most DVDs and videos, even before the films were released.”  

People with sales experience will tell you it’s all about the chat, the art of being a persuasive communicator – and this early-developed skill has served her well in politics. One quickly forms the impression that if life were only about grafting, Berger would be at or near the top of the tree.

Speaking to her you get the impression that Berger feels she needs to graft extra hard at Westminster to work past criticism of her age, and gender. Berger tells a story about attending a climate change conference as shadow minister, and how she was asked whose aide she was. Laughing she says: “I’m nobody’s aide! I find a lot of people say, you know, ‘When do we get to meet the MP?’ And, er, no, I am the MP.” Given her youth, gender and looks she does admit there’s some extra grafting to get the media specifically to treat her seriously. “I work so hard to challenge that. I work even harder because of it, to compensate for it.”

Her education gave her a strong base from which to develop interpersonal skills. She attended the private Haberdashers’ Aske in Elstree, for which her parents must have sacrificed a great deal to pay for. What are her views on private education? “My parents sent me to a private school – that was their choice. I wouldn’t send my children, because the schools are so fantastic now, largely as a result of 13 years of Labour investment. Looking at the schools in my constituency – King David, for instance. It’s brand-new, and like a university campus – the facilities are better than those I had, and the quality of teachers is fantastic. Private schooling is so expensive, I don’t know how anyone affords it.”

Berger believes her passion for community work comes from her Jewish heritage: “I went to the synagogue a lot, and I was part of a strong community. One of its values, ‘Tikkun Olam’, literally means ‘repairing the world’, and it instilled strong values in me at quite young age.”   

Berger is “very proud” of her heritage, although she’s determined that it doesn’t define her politics, despite her having been a former director of the Labour Friends of Israel. “People were quick to define me as ‘The Jew’,” says Berger. “I hadn’t really seen anti-Semitism growing up, because in north-west London there were quite a few Jews. As a proportion of the population, we’re tiny, but we were concentrated in small areas.

“I was different because I celebrated different festivals – but I never felt persecuted,” she continues. But she did display a certain amount of bravery in taking on Hizb ut-Tahrir at university. While working as an NUS official, she was harassed and spat on. “They didn’t like the fact that I was speaking out against them, a banned organisation on campus. I was ensuring that they weren’t allowed to hand out their materials. They chased me around campus.”

She is reticent to describe their behaviour as anti-Jewish: “They were ‘anti’ lots of different students, anti-Jewish being one of them. They were also homophobic. But they don’t represent the mainstream Muslim community.”

As then, Berger refuses to be pigeon-holed or cowed. “If people don’t like you, they’ll find a reason not to like you,” she states. “I’m more than Jewish. I’m a woman, I’m British, I’m a Labour politician, I’m a Co-operative politician, I’m a politician from the north-west – there are lots of different things that define me.”  

She was involved in an varied number of activities as a young person, although she admits to not being very good at sport or music. “Basically, I was organised – I always have been. I did the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I organised visits to old people’s homes, I volunteered for a charity that helped children who had special educational needs.” And she also had demanding holiday jobs, such as one in the public affairs department of management consultancy giant Accenture.

Gaining consultancy experience provided Berger with a good grounding for working at the Stock Exchange and the Treasury, before moving on to the NHS Confederation and then Labour Friends of Israel. However, her first love was always politics and she applied to become the MP for Liverpool Wavertree. It was an application not without problems and incident for a parliamentary novice, and her placement in an all-women list was controversial. Some in the constituency were not happy about it.

Again, Berger proved her mettle by winning the contest against stiff opposition, but that wasn’t the end of it. She made the mistake of not knowing who Liverpool FC legend Bill Shankly was, or who sang Ferry ‘cross the Mersey. It gave her detractors a stick to beat her with, and they duly grasped it. Actor Ricky Tomlinson threatened to stand as a socialist candidate, saying: “This candidate they’ve parachuted in from London couldn’t answer some easy questions about Liverpool. I can’t understand why they’ve picked someone from London.”

Berger, however, took it all in her stride. Being challenged by a well-known actor from Liverpool (in a seat heavily targeted by Lib Dems) could have been catastrophic, but once again she countered with hard work. In 101 days she knocked on 10,000 doors by canvassing around the clock, which, any political activist or candidate will tell you, is no mean feat. Ricky Tomlinson did not stand.

In her climate change brief, the shadow energy minister has had success by getting an important amendment through in the Energy Bill and managed to introduce a green deal apprenticeship scheme. It was only one line, but apparently “the government forgot to vote against it”.
Despite her hard work, many still talk about Berger for other reasons. She holds the title of the UK Parliament’s ‘Sexiest MP’, as voted for by the public on sexymp.co.uk. She was also the winner of Sky News’ Top Trumps at party conference.

Being attractive is both a blessing and a curse, particularly for a female MP. On the upside it gets you noticed, but on the downside much of the media regard your personal life as open season. It takes one heck of a job to protect your privacy. Unfortunately for Berger, she’s been the target of a fair amount of speculation, and there’s been much media interest about her personal relationships.

Euan Blair (“false”), Siôn Simon (“true – he was my partner for three years”), Chuka Umunna (“true, but I’m currently not going out with him”) have featured, as has an incident with a ‘stalker’ who was sending her jewellery and other inappropriate items in the post. It must have been extremely difficult for any young person elected to Parliament – aged 29 in May 2010 – to have the paparazzi following them around Tesco, or to have their late-night bus trip with a fellow Labour rising star reported in the national press.

Berger tries hard to protect her privacy and chastises me for this line of questioning. I’m following the pack, she chides – although I contend that my obvious questions are interesting to the reader. “This is what people know about you, and will expect me to probe,” I reply innocently. Yet she doesn’t resort to the standard responses. It is “because we are still too rare in Parliament, us women… we’re only 23 per cent”. If there were more women in Parliament, she believes, the media would not be so fixated on her.

This level of attention would probably make most people a little paranoid. Berger laughs it off (although not without admitting to sometimes feeling vulnerable). Her private and social life are low-key, including trips to the cinema, meals with friends, and, if there are nights out, she is “often the designated driver”. She’s not exactly teetotal (she likes a gin and tonic now and again), but she has never particularly enjoyed drinking, either.

Luciana Berger doesn’t like spending time on flighty matters, and when talking to her you get the very strong impression that she’s going to be a fixed part of the Labour political landscape for years to come. The steeliness that has brought her to such prominence at a young age is palpable, and it underlies her ambition, her drive and her ability.

As in all areas of Berger’s life, hard work and dedication have prepared her for the serious stuff.

Rob Wilson is the Conservative MP for Reading East

Tags: Chuka Umunna, Ed Miliband, Euan Blair, Issue 48, Labour Party, Luciana Berger, Rob wilson, Sion Simon

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