In her recently published book, Northern ReSisters, Bernadette Hyland interviews a number of women from a range of backgrounds who have been involved in the movements for peace and justice over the years. One such woman is Karen Reismann, an activist and trade unionist who works in the NHS. I spoke to them both to find out their reaction following the general election.

Unsurprisingly, neither was very happy. Karen says, “It was depressing thinking we have to face another five years of austerity”.

She points out though that all the mainstream parties were in favour of austerity in some form or another, and feels that Labour could have offered people a lot more than they did. Labour had pledged to pump an extra £2.5 billion into the NHS, and when the Tories instead pledged £8 billion, they simply argued over where they would get the money from, instead of welcoming it and finding other ways of raising revenue. For instance, “they could have pledged to employ more tax inspectors, who raise eight times their own cost in revenue.”

Karen does believe there is the opportunity to fight back. For a start, whilst we have a Tory government, 76% of those eligible to vote in the last election did not vote Conservative. She believes that mainstream political parties are far behind the general population on a number of issues. For instance, “80% of the population want the railways to be renationalised, along with utilities such as gas and electric.”

Karen forecasts the possibility to fight back, as she believes that, because of the attacks ordinary people face on things such as disability benefits and the bedroom tax, people will be left with no choice.

I said that whilst at a recent well attended anti-austerity demonstration in Manchester, I had spoken to a number of people and had been particularly struck by the number of young people getting involved in politics for the first time; particularly young women.

Karen agreed: “I recently attended a Save Our NHS meeting at Manchester University. There were over 150 people there, the vast majority aged 20 or under, and women outnumbered the men by two to one.”

Such signs are positive. Bernadette Hyland is cautious though. Whilst pleased to hear of such high attendance, she points out that this is involving students who are already politically involved and turned on to resisting the Tory cuts. What the Left needs to do is connect with people in the main working class areas of the city. Something she thinks is mostly missing at this point.

“The Left seems too obsessed with celebrity activists. Everyone is going on about Charlotte Church, but she’s a millionaire. Who cares what she thinks?” argues Bernadette. She feels the Left really needs to connect with people in areas of the city such as East Manchester. Areas where private companies spreading from the Etihad Campus (including Manchester City’s stadium) outward are taking control of various aspects of public services, such as interfering in education by setting up Academy schools, all whilst the council appears to be retreating from the area and leaving them to it.

In one article in Northern ReSisters, Bernadette interviews a variety of women activists and it is noticeable how the younger ones are less likely to be involved in any form of political party, whereas the older ones have been members of the Labour Party, the Socialist Workers Party, Greens, The Communist Party, and so on. Does she think this is an issue?

“I think it can be. Whilst I was never a member of the Communist Party, I learnt a lot about how to be a trade unionist from the experiences of those that were.”

Karen, a member of the Socialist Workers Party, thinks it is important. “In 1979 when Thatcher was elected, 200,000 people joined the Labour Party, and I was one of them. That’s not something that is going to happen now, but people are angry and are looking for a political home. I think we need to work with people and try to win them over to Socialist ideas.”

One thing both Bernadette and Karen clearly agree on is that it’s important for people to get involved in whatever way they feel interested. “I think it is important that people get involved in campaigns they have an interest in, because that passion will keep you involved,” says Bernadette.

Karen adds that it is also important for people to campaign against things which stop us from fighting back effectively, such as standing up to racism or anti-immigration.

She says, “The only way we will win will be to stand united; men and women, black and white.”

The book is available from
Bernadette writes the blog.

Chris Tavner