John Harris

Journalist & Author

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Nationalisation isn’t enough. For better transport, you’ve got to go local | John Harris

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Behind the Northern Rail crisis is a system that’s staggeringly overcentralised. Power to change transport must be devolved

What a very British disgrace it all is. After endless delays, strikes and ticket-price hikes, as the latest crisis on the railways grinds on, the outgoing chief executive of Network Rail is made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, whatever that is. The secretary of state for transport faces calls for his resignation, but grimly stays put. And every day, the ongoing saga of Northern trains highlights not just the daily pain inflicted on thousands of travellers in the north-west and beyond, but the awful state of this country’s public transport.

To recap: new timetables were meant to be introduced as part of a big drive to improve services. But, as with Govia Thameslink in the south-east, Northern – a franchise operated by Arriva, the multinational transport giant that is a subsidiary of Germany’s state-owned Deutsche Bahn – had not trained enough drivers. At the same time, Network Rail compounded the mess by allowing electrification work to overrun. An overlooked factor in the chaos is the legacy of something that happened six years ago, when Network Rail centralised its timetabling operations in Milton Keynes, and created a system that had far too little connection with realities on the ground. Such is yet another example of one of the great ironies of recent history: that Thatcherite believers in the liberating wonders of markets have proved to be very good at creating byzantine, top-down, endlessly failing systems rather suggestive of the worst aspects of the old Soviet Union.

Related: The town that refused to let austerity kill its buses | Aditya Chakrabortty

Related: Rail Q&A: Northern and Thameslink train chaos explained

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Our schools are broke – so why aren’t we talking about it? | John Harris

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Soaring class sizes, teaching hours cut, neglected repairs. Brexit has taken attention away from the cost of ideology-driven cuts

Michelle Gay is the headteacher of Osborne primary, a 270-pupil local authority school in Erdington, on the north-eastern edge of Birmingham. In total, 25% of her pupils are categorised as having special educational needs, 39% have a first language other than English, and 43% are eligible for free school meals.

Osborne primary has an urgent issue: a lack of money. Ofsted rates it as “a good school with outstanding leadership”, and since 2016 its numbers have been expanding: in September 2019 it will take on another new class, but Gay won’t have enough money to pay for a new teacher, so the teaching will be done by existing staff. She says she needs at least 13 classroom assistants to help children who need extra support – not least those who need help with English – but only has 11. The school used to get about £100,000 a year from Birmingham city council and other agencies to pay three staff who work on child protection and supporting parents, as well as counselling children with mental health issues. That money now has to come from the school’s own budgets. So to save £1,500, swimming lessons have been cut back, along with £2,000 worth of music tuition. Gay has explained all this on ITV Evening News and in the pages of the Birmingham Mail, but to no avail.

Related: Headteachers warn parents: there is not enough money to fund schools

Related: Our children are over-stressed. This is how we can protect them | Gaby Hinsliff

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Ignore the hype over big tech. Its products are mostly useless | John Harris

Monday, May 21st, 2018

It’s years since Silicon Valley gave us a game-changer. Instead, from curing disease to colonies on Mars, we’re fed overblown promises

Back in 1999, Google hit 1bn searches a year. Wifi began to make an impact about two years later. Thanks to the pioneers of Facebook and Twitter, the age of mass social media dawned between 2004 and 2006 – and non-stop posting, messaging and following was soon enabled by the iPhone, launched in 2007. These things have changed the world and, in hindsight, the way they became ubiquitous had a powerful sense of inevitability. But the revolution they represented is old now, and nothing comparable has come along for more than a decade.

Despite this, a regular ritual of hype and hysteria is now built into the news cycle. Every now and again, at some huge auditorium, a senior staff member at one of the big firms based in northern California – ordinarily a man – will take the stage dressed in box-fresh casualwear, and inform the gathered multitudes of some hitherto unimagined leap forward, supposedly destined to transform millions of lives. (There will be whoops and gasps in response, and a splurge of media coverage – before, in the wider world, a palpable feeling of anticlimax sets in.)

Related: Social media spying is turning us into a stalking society | Keza MacDonald

Related: Has dopamine got us hooked on tech?

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A warning to the Tories: Britain’s true-blue suburbs have turned liberal | John Harris

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

From Trafford to Kingston upon Thames, our affluent areas are becoming more diverse and progressive. Theresa May’s monochrome retro-politics has little appeal for them

Two weeks ago there was a small earthquake on the southern edge of Greater Manchester. The Tories lost control of the borough of Trafford, the “island of blue in a sea of red”, whose supposedly ingrained Conservatism has long been highlighted by its selective school system. Labour gained four seats – but in the detailed Trafford results, there was something arguably even more seismic. In the affluent suburb of Altrincham, where the senior Tory backbencher Graham Brady has his constituency home, two victorious Green party candidates ended a Conservative dominance that used to seem as natural as the weather. This means that, having already watched Trafford vote 58% for remain, this most Eurosceptic, Thatcherite, grammar-school supporting of MPs now shares the local air with representatives of a politics that sits at the opposite end of just about every political spectrum you could think of.

David Cameron, George Osborne and their circle bigged up diversity and liberal values. Then came the referendum result

Related: Finchley: few seats can boast such stark differences in wealth | Rafael Behr

Related: Black flight: how England’s suburbs are changing colour | Hugh Muir

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May 1968: the revolution retains its magnetic allure

Saturday, May 12th, 2018

A Stone Roses album, a Hari Kunzru novel, a Gucci ad campaign … 50 years after the events of May 1968, our writer reflects on how the ideas and energy of that moment live on today

We are now as far from the events of 1968 as the people involved were from the end of the first world war. Cliche has long since reduced much of what occurred to “student revolt”, but that hardly does these happenings justice, partly because it ignores the workers’ strikes that were just as central to what occurred during ’68 and the years that followed, but also because the phrase gets nowhere near the depth and breadth of what young people were rebelling against, not least in France.

This was the last time that a developed western society glimpsed the possibility of revolution focused not just on institutions, but the contestation of everyday reality, which is still enough to make the simple phrase “May 1968” crackle with excitement – even if you were not around when les évenéments took place. I was born in 1969, but what happened in France and beyond retains a magnetic allure.

They exude a deeply romantic sense of ordinary reality somehow being suspended

Related: Archive: Paris students in savage battles – 1968

When people were drawn into a new Labour party by Corbyn, their links to the politics of 40 years before became clear

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