The former Labour MP Luciana Berger has announced today that she is no longer an independent in parliament and has joined the Liberal Democrats. Berger becomes the party’s sixteenth MP in parliament, and is the second former Labour defector to join the Lib Dems, after Chuka Umunna made the jump this summer.
In an interview with the Evening Standard revealing her decision to join the party, the Wavertree MP said that she was committed to stopping a ‘catastrophic’ no-deal Brexit and later said she had joined ‘the strongest party to stop Brexit, fight for equality and a fairer country.’
Berger resigned from Labour in February this year in protest at the party’s Brexit policies, its handling of anti-Semitism complaints, and because of the personal abuse she received from local activists in her constituency in Liverpool Wavertree. The Jewish MP, who was heavily pregnant at the time, founded the Independent Group with six other Labour defectors and then quit in June after its disastrous showing in the European parliament elections.
It’s not a huge surprise that Berger has crossed the aisle to join the Liberal Democrats. On the biggest issue of the day, Brexit and a second referendum, the MP is ideologically aligned to the Lib Dems, and she is personally close to Umunna, who joined the party in June.
But it is the strongest sign yet that independent MPs and defectors are beginning to consider how they will be affected by a general election. Without the support of a political party’s name-recognition, local activists and campaign machinery, it’s very unlikely that independent MPs will manage to hold on to their seats at the next election. Even with the support of a party, some defecting MPs will face an uphill battle to return to the Commons. Berger, for example, will struggle to re-take the Labour stronghold of Liverpool Wavertree, which is why there are already reports that she may be parachuted into another constituency by her new party. Either way, now that an election is on the cards, you can expect to see even more independents move towards joining an established party that can either offer them campaign support, or let them contest a more favourable seat.
For the Liberal Democrats, Berger’s arrival is certainly a coup, and a sign that Jo Swinson’s charm offensive towards potential defectors from the two main parties is working effectively. One of Swinson’s key pitches during the Lib Dem leadership campaign earlier this year was that she had close links to potential defectors in the opposition, and the soft skills to win them over to her party. So far the strategy seems to be paying off. Berger said in the interview announcing her decision that she and Swinson had bonded on a WhatsApp group for MPs with babies and struck up a friendship after discussing motherhood. Berger becomes the fourth defector to join the party in three months, after the Tory MP Phillip Lee crossed the aisle this week.
And while the timing of Berger’s announcement was a little unfortunate for the party – in that it has largely been largely drowned out by the shock resignation of Boris’s Johnson’s brother from the government – every time the Liberal Democrats are able to announce that a new MP has joined their party, the stronger they become in parliament, and more they are able to position themselves as the main opposition to Brexit and the Conservative Party.