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Victory for socialist Joel Harden in Ottawa

By: 
Tom Leonard

June 11, 2018

Roughly two hundred supporters and volunteers gathered in a converted warehouse space in central Ottawa on election night June 7 for a victory party to mark the election of ‘democratic socialist’ Joel Harden as the new NDP MPP for Ottawa Centre.

Harden billed himself as a socialist throughout the campaign, openly referencing Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain as his inspirations, and explicitly identifying as a socialist when canvassing constituents. As Rami, a Palestinian anti-war activist said at the victory event, “Climate change is happening so fast, we cannot wait, so I was convinced of this kind of transformative policies that Joel was talking about. He was representing bold ideas that we need. And he was talking about social justice and human rights in a way that was totally different.”

He was the target of concerted attack ads on television by the Tories and their supporters in the Sun newspapers, which referred to him as a “self-righteous lefty,” among other things. In the days before the election, the National Post profiled the contest in the riding, noting that Harden wrote a book on grassroots social movements and campaigned against the Energy East pipeline. He was described as canvassing “at a glacial pace” while his principal opponent, Liberal Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, moved through apartment buildings “fast… running from one door to the next to greet voters who, for the most part, know him.”

Missing from the Post’s profile was any indication that they grasped that this difference was part of Harden’s appeal – he would happily spend fifteen minutes on a doorstep speaking to a resident about their leaking ceiling and bad landlord. He came across as genuine, argued that voters should “demand more from politics”, that his campaign was “about us, and building the strength of us” and concluded his victory speech and follow-up thank-you letters to volunteers by quoting Corbyn’s slogan “for the many, not the few.”

In contrast to most other ridings in the province, Harden’s campaign began a concerted canvassing and fundraising operation in November 2017, months before election day, recruiting 1,200 volunteers over the course of the following seven months to knock on almost every door in the riding. The campaign reportedly raised more money than any other NDP riding association in the province, including that of ONDP leader Andrea Horwath, and more than doubled the funds raised during the previous provincial election in 2014.

That year Yasir Naqvi, an extremely popular, high-profile and effective local politician, won the seat with 27,000+ votes, an absolute majority of votes cast. This year, more than 29,500 people voted for Harden, almost tripling the NDP’s vote from 2014, and beating the total that Naqvi received four years ago by more than 2,000 votes. Harden got more votes this year than Naqvi ever has, despite being the winner of the three previous elections. Noteworthy too is that Naqvi polled more than 21,000 votes this time, which would have been enough to win the riding in any of those three previous elections, and represents a decline of only approximately 6,000 votes from four years ago.  Even if every one of those 6,000+ votes went to the NDP this year, this suggests that Harden’s campaign was successful in mobilizing people who had not previously voted, as some factor other than declining Liberal support is needed to explain those unaccounted-for 13,000+ new NDP votes.

Harden has pledged to use his new position as MPP to help social movements fighting to defend and extend services. This sentiment is the right one but given how timidly the NDP has addressed key issues like the $15 minimum wage throughout the campaign, it will be up to social movements and organizers across the province to build the networks of solidarity required to beat back the coming Tory attacks, and so give Harden the opportunity to deliver on his pledge.

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