Within the VSP Laidler did not push forward in his first year, as he was absorbed in learning all he could from Tom Mann—how to speak, organise and write.
Percy Laidler in 1908
In February 1907 a number of committees were set up to extend the work of the party. He was elected to the "Industrial—or 6 hour day Committee" and the "Paper Committee". The building workers had struck for a 44 hour week and a banner was carried in that year's May Day procession, for a 6 hour day. The Paper Committee (Socialist) had as other members, John Curtin, H. H. Champion, Tom Mann and Harry Scott-Bennett (secretary). It was proposed to enlarge the paper.
There were other committees: Municipal (places for speaking and playgrounds for children); Young Comrades; Band; Cosmopolitan and May Day. It is interesting to note in that year there were sixteen women compared with four men on the May Day Committee.
Laidler's name began to appear in speakers' lists, and Port Melbourne pier, Prahran and South Melbourne markets became his usual stumps.
At the half-yearly meeting a special vote of thanks was tendered Percy Laidler and E. J. Russell "for so efficiently discharging the duties of auditors".
The Victorian Labor Party was critical of the VSP even before it stood any independent candidates. In Melbourne it only did so on three occasions. It supported Labor Party candidates before and after these particular contests. In Sydney, the Socialists more frequently stood candidates.
A country member, Councillor Miles of Port Fairy, was elected to Council and won the position after a long hard fight.
In July 1907 it was decided to put into effect the resolution of conference by standing E. F. Russell as a socialist in the Port Melbourne Municipal Elections, to be held in August. The results were:
|A. V. Renowden||959|
|J. H. Morris||857|
|E. F. Russell||834|
Russell as a straight-out socialist was within 125 of the highest of the list and the socialists were very pleased. The Labor Party was very annoyed at the entry of the socialists into the electoral field although according to the Socialist the rank and file did not share this bitterness.
W. O'Connor, Secretary of the Coal Lumpers' Union in Sydney, was elected an Alderman of the Sydney City Council and was the first success of a socialist in an election since the conference decision. Victorian State elections were held on the 29th December 1908 and the VSP decided on the 14th December to nominate as candidates Angus McDonell for Melbourne and Percy Laidler for Collingwood on a straight-out program for socialism, in opposition to Labor Party candidates.
McDonell contested with three other candidates, one Labor Party and two described as "Anti-Socialists". Laidler had as opponents Labor (well-known Martin Hannah) and two independents.
A joint manifesto was produced and in it not one promise is made the electors. It was a program truly free of "palliatives", a strong point of criticism of the Labor Party on the part of the socialists.
Angus McDonell held his first meeting, 24 hours after the decision that he should stand. H. H. Champion chaired, speakers were the candidate and P. Laidler, Mrs. Katz, John Curtin, Frank Hyett, E. J. Russell, Frederics, Bob Ross and Anderson.
Socialist Party 1908 election manifesto - no "palliatives".
At Laidler's first meeting with Frederics in the chair were speakers E. J. Russell, Frank Hyett, Mrs. Katz, Bob Ross, E. J. Holloway, John Curtin and Mr. Leitch.
The Socialist reported—"Then came Curtin in a rousing review of the Labor Socialist situation, his speech being a magnificent justification of separate socialist action."
It described Laidler's speeches in the campaign in this way: "Those who know him best would be surprised at the vigour and clearness of his speeches." In the first week of the campaign meetings were held with 600-700 present. The second and final week, three and four meetings were held each night. Electors were canvassed door-to-door. Headquarters for Laidler were at 214 Wellington Street, Collingwood and Joe Swebleses was his campaign secretary. Again the Socialist opined "From cheering and street demonstrations from admirers, one would think that Laidler would top the poll."
J. Hughes and C. Delalande were joint secretaries for McDonell.
The candidates were enthusiastically endorsed at the Bijou Theatre at its Sunday night meeting and a special issue of the Socialist with photos of the candidates and the manifesto, headed "Let New Blood In" with footnote "VOTE FOR SOCIALISM", was printed and 700 extra copies run off. Other slogans were "To the Polls for Socialism"; "Capitalism on to Socialism"; "Have done with Palliative Piffle".
An article declared "Palliatives blur the path, obscure the goal, delay emancipation. Laborism grows increasingly reactionary, socialism increasingly revolutionary. They are economic poles. No compromise. No political trading."
Laidler was then 24 years old but looked a good deal younger. Viv Crisp retails a story that during the campaign he, with Laidler and others were in a hotel, when the barmaid turned to Perc and said, "Sonny, would you mind slipping out for a pound of tomatoes?" Naturally he obliged, and whilst out, Viv confounded the barmaid by saying, "Did you know that is the candidate for Collingwood you sent out for tomatoes?" The fact that Perc's drink was lemonade and cloves when the others were drinking beer would add to the illusion of youthfulness.
The results so far as Labor and Socialist were concerned, were:—
In Collingwood there was a total vote of 2,450 from a Roll of 4,407 (voting not compulsory)
In Melbourne 2,192 voted from a Roll of 5,636
In New South Wales socialist candidates had stood for election in August. Harry Holland was a candidate for Darling Harbour where many coal lumpers lived and the socialists had aided them in a recent strike. The outcome of the poll was:
|John Norton, Independent Labor||1666|
|Holland, International Socialist||746|
|Jones, Independent Liberal||440|
Holland in 1901 had polled 34 votes in Lang so his vote of 746 was regarded as a gain of 2000 per cent.
The International Socialist Review (Sydney) summed up the results—"In each case there was a middle class labor party candidate in the field so that the vote in our case was a straight out expression, and Victorian comrades are to be congratulated accordingly."
Ben Tillett, General Secretary of the Dockers' Union in Britain, and a co-leader with Tom Mann and others of the Dock Strike of 1889, visited Australia in 1897-8 and again in 1907-8. In 1898 he spoke on the Yarra Bank on May Day and told the crowd, "It was like Hyde Park save for the smell of the Yarra". The attendance was estimated to be 25,000. He had earlier spoken on Federation.
Laidler acted as organiser of Tillett's meetings during his 1907 Victorian tour. They travelled to Trafalgar in Gippsland by train. Tillett didn't feel like speaking at the meeting, he wanted to get away. He couldn't be bothered with the country and wasn't concerned with getting the message to a few people. He was concerned with the effect he had on big meetings.
The following day, Perc and, others, went half a mile from the centre of the town and held a meeting. Tillett didn't come. Socialists and others had come big distances, expecting to hear the famous Tillett, but he'd had enough. It was City and Suburban Town Halls and the Yarra Bank for him.
Tom Mann, of course, would speak without a chairman, to two men and a dog after acting as crier of the meeting.
Ben Tillett was considered a great orator—some thought even better than Tom Mann. Laidler's comparison was—Ben could get his audience to weep! Tom could get them to fight!
Laidler was again auditor in 1908. On September 1908 he was elected to the executive, made assistant secretary and was paid 30/- a week for his services. This was the date that Tom Mann departed for Broken Hill to assist in union organisation in that city.
Some people today imagine that there was only one big period of unemployment in Australia—and that during the economic crisis which began in 1929. Prior to the second World War crises of unemployment were regular and a degree of unemployment perpetual.
Laidler first gravitated from education, study of theory, and propaganda work into the active struggle when he got into the van of the unemployed movement and led this with J. W. Fleming, the anarchist in 1908.
Fleming was no stranger to unemployed struggles. He was active in 1889-1890. The unemployed then met on a vacant block of land next to the Workingmen's College (R.M.I.T.) fronting La Trobe Street. Processions were illegal unless authorised by the Mayor. The unemployed were not favoured with the Mayor's authorisation and illegal processions were frequently organised. Rosa, one of the leaders, would call on the men to parade the "block". Rosa drew the attention of the men to the use of dynamite, nitro-glycerine and melinite as elements likely to aid them in their struggles against the plutocratic classes. The men descended on ministers, the Bishop of Melbourne, the Chamber of Commerce and on an historic occasion marched to Government House. The police had thought the destination to be the Town Hall and when the men passed the Town Hall there was some panic and a telephone call to Russell Street brought numerous horse-cabs loaded with police scurrying after the unemployed. The Governor, Lord Hopetoun, received a deputation and promised what assistance he could. He gave a donation and surprised Melbourne by sending 300 bottles of champagne to Fleming for the unemployed. The Shamrock Brewery exploited the situation by adding several 18-gallon barrels of beer. There was a great turn up from all over Melbourne for the distribution. Hopetoun later went on strike—he demanded £16,000 a year extra, and when he didn't get it, "walked out", and returned to England. In 1893 an Unemployed Workers Association was formed in Richmond with anarchist David Andrade as secretary. The aim of this organisation was to conduct a Labour Bureau, hold meetings, assist in land settlement and, to favor all rational attempts at carrying on co-operative production, manufacturing and distribution.
Tom Mann was always concerned with the unemployed and in 1906 the Social Questions Committee made a survey of Carlton, Collingwood, Fitzroy, Footscray, North Melbourne, Port Melbourne, Prahran, Richmond and West Melbourne. 1967 houses were visited and living in these were 408 unemployed. It was claimed that nearly all able-bodied men were unemployed.
The organisation concentrated on involving the churches.
In June 1906, 250 men marched to St. Paul's Cathedral. The Melbourne Archbishop, Clarke, heard about it and sent word that they would be welcome. They were treated with courtesy and good seats were roped off for them. The Archbishop preached "If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he has none of His." There were interjections which the Socialist claims were not harmful but clearly all in the right tone. Clarke preached thrift when in work and that low wages should be accepted. He also told them English conditions were worse. He was told by an unemployed spokesman that this was not the point. There were 2,500 men and 2,500 boys out of work, adding to this figure 1,000 women and 2,000 children there were at least 8,000 suffering.
Visits to the Australian Church and Scots Church were in contrast. At Scots Presbyterian Church (Dr. Marshall), the unemployed received a hostile reception. Interjections were strong, "Why talk about after death—why not tell us how to keep alive?" Dr. Marshall was requested to address them after the service, which request was declined. The service ended with three cheers for the social revolution.
On the other hand at the Australian Church there was not one interjection. The Rev. Charles Strong asked them to stay after the service and have a special meeting on the subject of unemployment, and asked them to make definite proposals. This was done and it was suggested the church make a house to house survey on poverty.
Rev. S. Pearce Corey, of Collins Street Baptist Church, extended an invitation to the unemployed. Nearly half the seating in the church was reserved, suitable songs were specially printed and hearty refreshments were given after the service.
In organising a church demonstration the unemployed inserted this advertisement:—"Unemployed Church Parade Sunday morning. Swanston Street 10.15. 'God save the people'. Meanwhile let us save ourselves."
The unemployed gathered at the opening of Parliament, the Governor was hooted, troopers charged into the crowd, one man was arrested and in court his case was dismissed.
It was in October 1908 that Laidler the socialist joined forces with Fleming the anarchist and set about organising some spectacular events to focus attention on the unemployed.
The Treasury Gardens came to be the meeting-place of the unemployed (possibly because Fleming as a bootmaker had taken a prominent part in a big strike of the bootmakers and it had been their custom to meet at the Treasury Gardens). They would call a meeting by means of inserting an advertisement in the "Meetings" Column of the Age. From here, there would be demonstrations to ministers at nearby Parliament House and officials in the Treasury Buildings. Usually only a deputation would get in to see the person concerned.
There was no formal organisation of the unemployed.
The dole was unheard of and the purpose of the deputation to the Chief Secretary, Public Works Department, etc., was to ask for work. The only time work was given was in order that the most active of the unemployed could be deployed to country towns.
The biggest achievement of the Laidler-Fleming leadership was headlined in the Argus of October 21st, 1908, as follows:—
RAID ON PARLIAMENT.
DOOR HANDLE WRENCHED OFF.
LABOR MEMBERS HOOTED.
When Mr. Reid (Leader of the Federal opposition) had been speaking about an hour in support of his want-of-confidence motion in the House of Representatives yesterday a burst of cheering from somewhere outside the Chamber made members wonder. The Speaker leaned forward in his chair in alarm. The Sergeant-at-arms and the Clerk rushed out of the House to see what was happening. It was the cheering of 50 or 60 unemployed outside in the vestibule.
A score of their number had at the moment leapt at the doors and tried to force a way into the Queen's hall.
It was reported the unemployed had been standing quietly from two o'clock until four o'clock (they had expected to be shown to places in the gallery) when they were finally refused admission. The Argus continued, "Their desire to reach the chamber was fired to white heat by a call from their leader (Mr. Percy Laidler). He is the assistant secretary of the Socialist Party. The three doors leading into the Queen's hall were attacked, and for a moment it seemed that the men were to succeed. But the officers of Parliament and a handful of police locked and barred the entrances, the last being made secure just as one big fellow clean wrenched the massive handle off. . ."
" 'Look at those murderers and parasites up there,' said one man (sweeping his hand around the balconies)."
The demonstration received nationwide coverage. This clip is from the Adelaide Advertiser. (Image via Trove Digitised Newspapers, National Library of Australia.)
The Argus goes on to report that Mr. Percy Laidler removed his hat, stepped to the middle of the hall and started to harangue the crowd in loud tones. He attacked the Labor members for not coming out and supporting them. He said, "We have only attempted peaceably to get into our own Federal House"..."Dr. Maloney ordered me out." He suggested they would stand a candidate against Dr. Maloney at the next elections. He said they would go to the conservative members in future, a remark cheered by the crowd. "The Labor men will be knocked out of the road (men—'lazy loafers'). They don't represent us. They only represent the middle class" (cheers) . . . Laidler went on, "Fisher said, 'For God's sake, men, don't make a demonstration in the galleries, I am in sympathy with you.' (laughter). Yes, Mr. Fisher, but sympathy will not feed us."
He then addressed the politicians, "If your wives and children were starving would you not try to get through the doors of Parliament? (loud cheers). If they refused to let you in what would you do? If you were sensible men you would blow the place up."
The Argus went on to report that it was awkward in Parliament for an hour or so—every door back, front and side was locked. People could only come and go through a closely guarded entrance. About eighty police had been called but they took no action. Members of Parliament panicked and next day the member for Barwon, one Crouch, demanded more police protection. Guards were added in order that the unemployed could not get so close to the parliamentarians again.
The Socialist reported, "Comrade Laidler deserves high praise for his behaviour, and the coolness which prevented an outbreak. The police, too (numbers of which are in sympathy with the unemployed), ought to be thanked for their kindly treatment. Orders have since been issued that no police may leave the barracks during the afternoon, which practically means keeping them on all day and night. This is very hard lines, and it is to be hoped that this sort of senseless panic will subside."
Laidler was banned from the precincts of Parliament House for life but he, of course, ignored the ban.
On another occasion a minor riot was staged at the office, of Tommy Bent the Premier, over a necessitous unemployed case. Nothing was done. The Socialist Party at its Sunday night meeting at the Bijou Theatre took up a collection of 23/-, a fairly large sum in those days.
Later Laidler met Bent in the street and the latter asked if he had obtained relief for "that case". Laidler told him the Socialist Party collected 23/-. Bent said, "For a sick woman, was it?" "No," he was told, "the woman was going to have a baby and all she had was a slice of bread and butter which she kept near her bedside, keeping it to eat when in labour, to give her strength to bear the child."
Some time afterward Laidler met the father of the child and asked him how it was. He was told that they gave it to someone for £5.
Two to three hundred unemployed filed into the Stock Exchange and took possession of the public hall. They refused to budge. The usual business of the Stock Exchange was brought to a standstill. One man referred to the Stock Exchange members as "a body of parasites which battened upon labour".
Four delegates, Laidler, Frank Hyett, Walsh and H. H. Champion were taken upstairs to confer with the Committee of the Exchange. On returning, Hyett as spokesman, informed the men that Mr. Noall of the Stock Exchange said that they would be willing to act with the unemployed in putting consolidated pressure on the government so that relief works may be instituted. The delegates were to return in the afternoon. Apparently there had been a discussion at the 'Change because the delegation was informed by D. J. Gilchrist (Chairman) that the Stock Exchange never directly or indirectly had taken part in politics. While they were sympathetic they felt it out of place for the Exchange to dictate to the Government in matters of that sort. Hyett then particularised and asked for assistance in retaining furniture of an unemployed man in Fitzroy. Gilchrist replied he would speak to members personally about it.
• • •
There were frequent marches on newspaper offices requesting publicity and support.
Ways to defeat obstruction were novel. Jack Chapple said "the first time I met Laidler he was walking backwards". A march had been banned so walking backwards was regarded as a way round it.
While still assistant secretary, in January he had the proud task of interviewing celebrated Socialist author, Jack London, who came to Australia to report the Burns-Johnson heavyweight championship of the world fight.
Jack London was one of the most popular authors in Australia as well as in his native America. His outdoor, rugged stories appealed beyond the labour circles but he was specially esteemed by socialists for his social writings and his allegiance to the cause. He was especially revered for his definition of a "scab". The announcement that he was coming as a reporter to cover the fight caused great excitement in the socialist camp. He did not attend any meetings as his health was poor, and after a brief stay on the mainland he went to Tasmania to rest.
The Socialist of January 15th, 1909, reports:—
Comrade Jack London, traveller author, war correspondent, and many other talented things, arrived in Melbourne on Saturday. In an interview in the Herald he spoke out straightly and unambiguously as to his allegiance to revolutionary socialism. Mrs. Mann saw Mr. and Mrs. London on Saturday, and secretary P. Laidler and H. H. Champion had a yarn with the pleasant pair on Sunday. Mr. and Mrs. London are more than delighted with the socialist activity in Melbourne and wish it long life and early triumph,. They sent a message of greeting and good will to the Bijou meeting on Sunday.
Laidler interviewed London at his hotel; the room was full with sporting men, journalists, fellow-passengers. The atmosphere was free and easy and London treated all as though they were his friends. London smoked incessantly, handed round drinks, and was a good talker, but he said he hated addressing public meetings.
Laidler did his best to cajole him into attending the Bijou Theatre, but he was adamant.
A couple of weeks after their arrival the Londons spent an afternoon at an informal picnic in the hills. London said to Laidler, "You couldn't get me to your meeting", then turning to someone else said, "He put up a hard fight to get me, but I'm not keen, I don't like meetings," Then to Laidler, "After you'd gone I had a real reason for not going to your meeting. Some Melbourne resident came along and took me in a buggy and pair to Brighton Beach."
He asked the gathering in general, "Don't you think you'll spoil the working class movement by putting forward reforms of a softening nature, that will sap the fighting spirit of the workers?"
The special interview by Laidler appeared in February 5th issue and was headed:
LABOUR LEGISLATION AND SOCIAL EVOLUTION.
About Books and a talk with Jack London.
In the interview London said that he was once arrested at Oakland for free speech in a socialist campaign.
He thought it could be possible that the triumph of socialism might involve physical force but only if the capitalist class refused to surrender. He discussed the scab and the tramp. He said that the surplus labour army is an economic necessity. Without it the present construction of society would fall to pieces. In discussing his literary work he said his preference would be to write pamphlets and poetry but that he wrote fiction for a living. He felt that his The Iron Heel might be his best contribution, and The Game his most literary work.
In Australia The Iron Heel, People of the Abyss and Call of the Wild were best sellers in the labour movement.
"A record gate of £26,200, nearly double the world's previous record—doubtful if equalled since Colosseum in Rome was crowded to witness gladiators in combat in the times of the Caesars," quoth one newspaper. Jack Johnson indisputably thumped out his victory in the Sydney Stadium.
Some of London's masterly reporting on the Burns-Johnson fight was disquieting to his internationalist fans.
He wrote, "Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He is a white man, and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win." Further, "No black living could have taken the punishment Burns did" . . . "If grit. and gameness should win by decree of natural law, then Burns I dare to say, would have won on Saturday, and in a thousand additional fights with Johnson he would win." He is also reported to have said, "I would have sacrificed my right arm to see the white man win."
Chauvinism was rife and to his own surprise, Burns was treated as though he was the victor. He was presented with a medal. Socialist criticises Randolph Bedford's article on the fight as being partisan and an incitement to passionate prejudice, but does not appear to mention London. Most of the socialists were for Johnson. Laidler thereafter regarded London as a chauvinist.
Hugh McIntosh (who arranged the fight) was entertained at the Australia Hotel and present were Hughes M.L.C., Tommy Burns, Jack London, W. A. Holman M.L.A. and Alderman Lindsay Thompson. Mrs. London helped make history by being quoted as the first woman to attend a prize fight in Australia.
An amusing incident was connected with Mrs. Charmian London while in Sydney. The Labor Women's Organising Committee discussed whether they should entertain Mrs. London.
London said, "If this discussion took place in the Women's Organising Committee and they declined to entertain my wife on account of her husband being a socialist, it seems parallel to a Protestant declining to give me a cup of tea because I am a Methodist when I didn't ask for a cup of tea at all." Had he known the W.O.C. he may have realised Mrs. London's attendance at a prize fight would affect their hospitality as much as London's socialism.
On January 15th, 1909 the Socialist stated that it was likely Laidler would relinquish the position as assistant secretary at the end of the party year in February as, "Our young and able colleague has run himself down and needs a spell. Few there are who will not regret the loss of Percy's secretarial services."
In the issue of February 19th an advertisement appeared for "applications for position of Assistant Secretary, to be lodged with the undersigned by 6 p.m. Monday next. Percy Laidler, Asst. Sec., 283 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne."
Socialist reports on April 9th, 1909: "Dragged before the magistracy on Thursday of last week for the heinous offence of distributing handbills in Yarra Park on the Sabbath, which isn't the Sabbath, our comrade Percy Laidler, was fined 5/- or three days. He elected 'to take it out' and was wrath when released through the party paying the fine."
In April Perc left for a "holiday at home on the farm" and was then to proceed to Broken Hill by request of the socialist group there. His departure was announced to the Bijou audience and it expressed its good wishes in a shower of clapping.
A week later he wrote that he was "loafing" at home and reading with profit, but felt the itch to be agitating. Soon after this he wired for 10 dozen Socialists much to the consternation of his conservative parents, and then took them to Berringa and began holding meetings and selling the Socialist to the 2,000 miners there.
Mid-May he was back in Melbourne resuming duties as an honorary Socialist Party organiser. He and another member named Blenck were arrested for addressing the unemployed in the Treasury Gardens. Perc was discharged and Blenck fined £l.
June 4th, 1909 issue of Socialist has a photo of Perc with caption "Socialist agitator who has gone to Broken Hill to organise for the Barrier Socialist Group".
With a report reading that Comrade Percy Laidler accompanied the Broken Hill groupists on Monday. "He goes to do what he can for the cause at Broken Hill, and as what he can do is much because of his experience and tact he should accomplish worthy things in that detailed organisation so necessary in successful activity. We expect to hear excellent reports of our comrade's work, and congratulate the group on securing his cooperation." The 20-week lockout in Broken Hill had attracted the eyes of all Australian revolutionaries and Laidler was eager to go to the Barrier (as it was usually called).
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