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The election in which Joe Chamberlain came 13th

The election in which Joe Chamberlain came 13th

🕔20.Aug 2014

I know – after July’s hyped commemoration of his death, you could probably do with a Joe-free month or so. On the other hand, if you insist on following a blog named after a guy who checked out more than a century ago, you can hardly complain when he puts in a personal appearance. Can you?

Anyway, this bit of holiday-reading is about two Chamberlain-related elections, both of which, even given the severely limited franchise of the time, raised a heck of a lot more public interest than Thursday’s ill-timed Police and Crime Commissioner by-election has managed.

Together, they make up a kind of mini-history mystery. First, 1868 – an object lesson in how to really fix an election; then 1870 – an object lesson in how to really screw one up.

In truth, Chamberlain’s wasn’t much more than a walk-on part in these particular elections. The lead was played (and, yes, the term is appropriate) by the man whose name lives on in Birmingham in the George Dixon Primary School, International School and Sixth Form College in City Road, Edgbaston – and, for those with monochrome tellies in the 50s and 60s, as the longest-running lead character in a British TV police series: PC George Dixon of London East End’s Dock Green.

The police link is rather a red herring – stemming from Sir Michael Balcon, producer of the original Dixon film, The Blue Lamp, deciding to name his fictional ‘beat bobby’ after his old junior school. The educational tribute, though, is entirely fitting.

Few Victorians could lay stronger claim to have been the ‘Father of Free Education’ than the real George Dixon – Yorkshire-born Birmingham businessman, philanthropist, Liberal politician, councillor, Mayor, for 20 years a Birmingham MP, and, above all, passionate and effective education reformer.

The title was accorded by a serious political magazine of the time, and was understandably pinched by James Dixon for his recent biography of his great-great-grandfather, Out of Birmingham: George Dixon (1820-98), ‘Father of free education’.

I had the pleasure of meeting James at last month’s commemorative Chamberlain conference organised by Newman University, of hearing his fascinating talk on ‘George Dixon and Chamberlain: Friends, Rivals and even Enemies’, and of purchasing a signed and generously reduced-price copy of his book.

From which I realised that the ‘Father of Free Education’ tag dated from 1890, much later in GD’s life than I’d previously supposed.

I’d unthinkingly assumed it probably referred to his dedicated campaigning for the famous 1870 Elementary Education Act, both as MP and Chairman of the Council of the Birmingham-based National Education League (NEL) that he had joint-founded the previous year.

Justifiably the best remembered of the several late-Victorian Education Acts, the 1870 Act set the framework of independent elected school boards to oversee the schooling of all children between 5 and 13 in England and Wales.

It was the first legislative demonstration that national government took the education of working class children seriously, and, you might think, a cue for Dixon and his like-minded NEL reformers to celebrate.

If so, you’d be dead wrong, and seriously underestimating the ‘advanced radicalism’ of Dixon and the NEL. What they wanted was free, compulsory, non-sectarian education for every child, paid for by local rates/property taxes and government grants – and they wanted it ALL, NOW.

What they got in 1870 was the first step, the institutional machinery: 2,500 school boards, directly elected by local ratepayers, which could, and eventually would have to, provide most of the above – though even that would take time.

School boards were empowered to make attendance compulsory for 5 to13-year olds, but not until 1880 were they required to.

Likewise, they could choose to pay school fees of children whose parents were judged too poor to afford them, and in that sense the 1870 Act did introduce the principle of free education. But only in 1891 was elementary education made free for all, thanks partly again to the parliamentary efforts of George Dixon – now sitting as Birmingham, Edgbaston’s first MP, and unofficial ‘Father of free education’.

Back now, though, to 1867 and the start of Dixon’s parliamentary career, when, as already a prominent local figure and incumbent Mayor, he defeated his Conservative opponent in the by-election following the death of William Scholefield, one of Birmingham’s then two Liberal MPs.

Dixon arrived at Westminster just in time to help persuade Disraeli to include in his 1867 Reform Act provision for Birmingham (along with Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool) to extend its representation from two MPs to three – the subtle quid pro quo being that, to protect the (Conservative) minorities in these still single town-wide constituencies, each elector would have only two, not three, votes.

The problem facing Birmingham Liberal organisers at the 1868 General Election, therefore, was how to ensure the return of all three Liberal candidates – John Bright, Dixon, and newcomer, Philip Henry Muntz – a job for which for which the Birmingham Liberal Association (BLA) might unwittingly have been created.

Formed three years previously by Dixon, Muntz and others (though not Chamberlain, ultimately its greatest beneficiary), the BLA lays claim to being a first in British politics: a permanent election committee, a prototype district party.

Its 1868 campaign strategy was centralist, authoritarian, and childishly simple. Precisely one-third of party members were instructed to vote for candidates 1 and 2, one-third for 1 and 3, and one-third for 2 and 3. There were inevitably rebels, but more than enough complied for all three Liberals to be duly returned.

My rhetorical question, therefore, is: how did this slick and shameless election machine come to screw up so comprehensively Birmingham’s first School Board elections just two years later in 1870?

It was a cumulative voting system: 15 board members to be elected by all ratepayers, all with 15 votes that they could distribute however they wished, including ‘plumping’ all on one candidate, should they choose.

BLA members should have been like pigs in clover. They might have behaved like genuine reformers and, as elsewhere, nominated some women candidates – but no. They could at least have again organized their supporters to ‘plump’ for specified candidates, ensuring a clear Liberal majority of, say, 10 out of 15.

Almost inexplicably, though, they did nothing. Their opponents, meanwhile, ‘got’ exactly what cumulative voting was about and managed it brilliantly.

The poll was overwhelmingly topped by the Very Rev. M O’Sullivan, whose barely 3,000 Catholic supporters gave him on average 12 of their 15 votes, and a total of 35,000. The Conservatives fielded just eight candidates, all of whom were elected, again through plumping – giving them, of course, a majority on the Board.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Liberals spread their votes fairly evenly among 15 candidates. None received even half  O’Sullivan’s total, and just 6 were elected, including Dixon in 8th place and Joseph Chamberlain in an embarrassing 13th – the lowest, I’d guess, the man sometimes labelled the first modern ‘machine politician’ finished in any political contest in his life.

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