Finding time to think

November 10, 1995

Clare Short says politicians and academics should work together to turn ideas into action.

This Saturday our "New Thinking on Women" conference will be held at Birkbeck College, London. The purpose is to bring together academics and Labour Party representatives working on issues that concern women. The conference has been convened by myself and Sylvia Walby, professor of sociology at the University of Bristol.

To those outside the worlds of academia and politics it might seem perfectly natural that we should come together to discuss our common interests in this way. It is a sign of the times that such an event is unusual. The "tabloidisation" of British politics has made politicians scared of intellectual debate and academics disdain politics. The result has damaged the effectiveness of both.

When I was appointed shadow minister for women in 1993, I was keen to draw on all available expertise and knowledge. In Westminster it is normal for business and other special interests to bombard us with briefings and reports. The stronger trade unions and voluntary organisations do the same. I was anxious to add to this the thinking of academics working in my field.

It may be the optimistic generation I was born into that has made me unashamedly interested in ideas. I thus wanted to know more about women's studies, which had grown up since my time at university, and which I suspected might hold some valuable new insights.

Having established the objective, I had to make the connections. I asked a friend to draw up a list of women academics and then invited them to lunch. They came - presumably out of curiosity - and we had a rather disorganised discussion. But there I met Professor Walby who shared my belief that the academic and political worlds had much to gain from each other. We talked about what might be achieved and agreed to set up a series of seminars at the House of Commons on Fridays. Each seminar focused on one research/policy topic and a small group of academics was invited to join an informal discussion, with one presenting an overview of research and current academic thinking.

Some of the discussion started from either side of a large divide. But mostly both sides moved together - as we shared the tantalising possibility that together we could help to create a better informed politics.

I found the seminar discussions enormously rich. Once the academics were clear that we were not writing Labour policy we were able to discuss big ideas and make an honest and informed analysis of long-term changes. Short termism, that famous British disease, is one which politicians suffer from particularly severely. They set their sights on the next election and this makes the maximum horizon only five years. Such short termism then infects those around us, including the press, who in turn infect the wider public.

But in the very short term little can be changed - thus everyone gets more depressed about their inability to halt or influence continuing British decline. The beauty of our Friday seminars was that we could step back, take a wider view, ask what changes are going on in society, and how politics can work productively with these changes.

This difference in horizons between political and academic culture makes joint discussion invaluable. Politicians may fear unorthodox, ambitious and potentially expensive ideas. Academics may not face up to the need to persuade the people. But our collaboration showed that by understanding each other's constraints, we could each be enlarged and strengthened by each other.

We certainly have a lot to gain. While politicians are hungry for information, many relevant academic research results fail to reach policy makers. For example, we held a fascinating meeting on the impact of different pension options on women's lives. Academic women presented data which was immediately useful for considering policy options. Similarly, important work analysing polling data and political attitudes by gender has been invaluable in considering campaigning and political organisation.

A seminar on violence against women helped us develop our policy initiative on domestic and sexual violence. Academic women provided us with insightful analysis as well as facts and figures. This helped inspire our focus on the bigger questions of why this violence is so common, and what it would take to eliminate it. Consequently Labour issued a consultation document - Peace at Home - asking the public's views. The outcome will be a plan of action for a Labour government.

For academics it is satisfying to see research results put to practical use. The test of big ideas is whether they can create strategic objectives and inform immediate policy debates. Our discussions have also raised questions highlighting gaps in research. By communicating we can move the research agenda forward into unexplored and neglected territory.

Having been appointed shadow secretary of state for transport, I leave the legacy of this collaboration to my successor, Tessa Jowell. We look forward to tomorrow's conference, which will widen the discussion to include about 200 academic women. I am not asking any of these women to vote for or support Labour though I expect many will. Rather I hope we will share ideas and analysis, strengthening our ability to understand the changes taking place in society which have been led by change in women's lives. Ideas are the most potent force in social change and yet the left, which is inspired by ideas, fails to harness them as powerfully as it could.

I must now find a new network of academics who can share with me their analysis of transport issues. I hope the collaboration between academic and Labour women can become a model for the sharing of ideas between academics and politicians more widely. I believe that the deepened understanding which would result can strengthen our ability to work with the grain of history to ensure we make progress generously and intelligently.

Clare Short is MP for Birmingham Ladywood and chair of Labour's national executive women's committee. She was appointed shadow secretary of state for transport last month.

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