How to cultivate the Commons touch

Seeking impact? Undertake research that prepares the ground for key political debates, says ex-Westminster insider Meg Russell

March 5, 2015

Source: Getty

Be heard: interests outside academia ‘need consideration from the start’

The best ways for academics “to get their research listened to, and even put into effect” by politicians have been set out in a lecture by the deputy director of the Constitution Unit at University College London.

Meg Russell worked as a researcher for Clare Short when Ms Short was a shadow minister, and later served as a full-time adviser to Robin Cook after he was made leader of the House of Commons.

Speaking this week in “Politics, Academia and the Real World”, her inaugural lecture as professor of British and comparative politics at UCL, she said her experiences had enriched her academic research, and helped it to be more effective in influencing policymakers.

A Constitution Unit report on all-women shortlists, she claimed, was effective in “strengthening the arguments of ministers who supported legal change, and weakening those of their opponents”, thereby paving the way for the Labour government to pass the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002.

More fortuitous was the positive outcome of a report on Commons procedures proposing “a ‘Backbench Business Committee’ with responsibility for timetabling a new form of non-government business, completely controlled by backbenchers”.

Such a report, Professor Russell said, “might normally be expected to fall on deaf ears…But then the MPs’ expenses crisis happened, and political leaders suddenly wanted to look like they were doing something”. Gordon Brown, who was then prime minister, latched on to the report and formed a House of Commons Reform Committee in 2009.

“If you want to be listened to by policymakers,” continued Professor Russell, “you need to be driven by research questions they care about…Being responsive to policymakers’ interests doesn’t necessarily mean being driven by them. Academics can also usefully think through where the policy debate’s likely to travel, and prepare the ground…Impact isn’t something that can be ‘bolted on’ after the event, having pursued questions of purely academic interest. The interests of the world beyond academia need consideration from the start.”

Although academics are often seen as inhabiting ivory towers, Professor Russell told her audience that they can provide politicians with a valuable reality check.

She recalled “a very senior Labour figure” in the House of Lords who once challenged her to find a single example of a vote where more crossbenchers had backed the government than opposed it.

“I went back to my office, checked my database, and half an hour later sent him a list of over 300 such examples. This person really should have known better, but the story illustrates the power of political myths, and the necessity of hard evidence to break them down.”

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