Renee Short, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East, 1964-87, died in January 2003 aged 86.
Renee Short was born Renee Gill in Leamington Spa in 1916. Her parents were émigré East-European/Jewish, though the young Renee was in fact brought up by her paternal grandparents, who were practicising Anglicans. She was educated at Nottingham Grammar School and Manchester University where she studied literature and languages, particularly French. There she met her future husband, a young Hungarian student who had escaped from Vienna just before the Germans arrived in 1937. Andre Schwartz changed his name to Andrew Short, married Renee in 1940 and went on to became a distinguished civil engineer. He was the rock on which Renee built her political career – a sort of Dennis Thatcher to her. After university she had a career as a freelance journalist – contributing to social services journals and to Tribune – and as a theatrical costumier – running her own stage design business.
A long political apprenticeship began in Hertfordshire where she was a councillor on Hertfordshire and Watford Councils. She unsuccessfully contested St Albans at the 1955 general election and Watford in 1959, as a member of the “Bevanite Second Eleven”, a group which also included Jo Richardson, Russell Kerr and Sheila Wright. In 1964 she won the safe seat of Wolverhampton NE and held this seat for the next 23 years.
In Parliament she specialised in health and social services issues, championing a wide variety of causes: junior hospital doctors, abortion rights and action to combat obesity. She had a great interest in science, notwithstanding her background in the arts, and in later years served as a lay member of the Medical Research Council. Her campaigns on medical matters were recognised by the award of honorary fellowships of both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society of Psychiatrists. She was also, for many years, the National President of both the Nursery Schools Association and the Campaign for Nursery Education.
She was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Party from 1970-81. First elected as hard-left winger, in the Women’s Section, she lost her seat in 1981 when she aligned herself with Michael Foot’s leadership in those difficult times, and was restored to the NEC for a second period from 1983-88,on a rather different political basis to her first term. Her politics were generally regarded as neo-stalinist – in the nicest possible way. She was for 15 years the Chairman of the British GDR Parliamentary Group, and for many years also the Secretary of the British-Soviet Parliamentary Group and President of the British-Romanian Friendship Association. Through these bodies she had extensive contacts and friendships in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. She found it difficult to condemn the invasion of Prague in 1968, because of her “love and admiration” of the Soviet Union. It might be argued that her blind spot for the shortcomings of the Soviet Union in part was derived from her abhorrence of fascism in all its forms. The bombing of Guernica, by Nazi Germany’s Condor Legion – one of the greatest atrocities of the Spanish Civil War – took place on 26 April 1937 – her twenty first birthday.
Her greatest contribution in Parliament came as the first Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Social Services from1979 until her retirement in 1987 – where her status was close to iconic. She stood down before the 1987 election rather than face a very tough second re-selection battle in Wolverhampton, having only been re-selected by the narrowest of margins prior to 1983. In retirement she maintained her life-long interest in the theatre, as a member of the Round House Theatre Council. She had been Chair of the Theatres’ Advisory Council from 1974-80 and in retirement she served a three-year stint as Chair of the Celebrities Guild.
Oh, and she bred standard poodles and showed them at Crufts.
Alan Howarth, PLP