NDP 'too white,' party president Rebecca Blaikie says

The president of the New Democratic Party thinks her party is "too white" and needs to aggressively diversify its ranks in order to better reflect Canadian society.

Party's election post-mortem finds that the ranks of NDP staff need to be more diverse

'Let's start doing some better outreach ... so we can change the look of the folks around the table,' says NDP president Rebecca Blaikie. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

The president of the New Democratic Party thinks her party needs to aggressively diversify its ranks in order to better reflect Canadian society.

"I think the party's too white, I think all parties are too white. But so are we, and so let's start doing some better outreach and acknowledging that, so we can change the look of the folks around the table," Rebecca Blaikie said in an interview with host Chris Hall on CBC Radio's The House.

"Sometimes you just need to own things, and say them out loud, in order to do a better job at them, [but] I think our politics around diversity are excellent," she said.

The party recently completed its post-mortem of the 2015 election campaign, which concluded the party's offer last year "was out of sync with Canadians' desire for a dramatic break" from Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

The review explicitly said that the party needs to reach out to a "broader and more diverse audience," which could be achieved by "diversifying our staff by reaching out into under-represented communities."

Blaikie said that the party's effort to recruit diverse candidates has fared well in part because it crafted policies and set targets to recruit candidates of colour, indigenous candidates and candidates living with disabilities — noting the party ran the most diverse slate of any party in Canadian history in the last election.

​She said the party should double down on that effort on the staffing front.

"Hopefully we can bring in some of those same policies around not just candidates but also who runs the party, who works for party and who works for the caucus," she added. "I think those goals, and those targets and those strategies should be worked at not just by other white folks trying to decide how we do that."

'Distinct' Quebec campaign

The orange wave of 2011 vaulted the NDP to Official Opposition for the first time in its history thanks to its strength in Quebec. Under leader Jack Layton, the party captured 59 of Quebec's 75 seats and dominated the francophone vote.

After Layton's death, the party elected his Quebec lieutenant, Tom Mulcair, to take on the top job in the hope that he could maintain the party's strong showing in la belle province

But Mulcair faltered in his home province in the 2015 campaign after he announced his support for the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.

"[The niqab] hurt us terribly. It was measured. I can share with you that the polling we did showed we dropped over 20 points in 48 hours here in Quebec because of the strong stand I took on the niqab," Mulcair said in an interview with The House in February.

Blaikie said it wasn't only Mulcair's support for the niqab that sank his numbers but also the party's failure to craft a distinctly Quebec-focused campaign.

"It's a distinct place. In 2011, when we had our breakthrough, we had a specific Quebec ad campaign and messages that were designed specifically to reach out to Quebecers. We didn't do that this time, I think that was a mistake."

The post-mortem concluded much the same, directing all future campaigns to include a "distinct Quebec strategy" — a buzzword in the province after the failed Meech Lake accord — in recognition of "Quebec's national character."

Mulcair not alone to blame

Blaikie said that the disappointing defeat in the last election should not be laid solely at the feet of Mulcair. 

"I think in a campaign there's always more than one [person to blame]. It's not one person, just as it's not one reason," she said.

Some commentators have said Mulcair's insistence on running a budget surplus in the first year hurt him with progressive voters who are less tied to fiscal prudence. But Blaikie said that Layton, too, pledged to balance the books and his leadership was heralded by many left-leaning members of the party.

Mulcair, who will be the subject of a leadership review vote at the party's convention April 8-10, has stridently denounced the Liberal government since the election, painting his party as a progressive bulwark against Liberal austerity.

The NDP leader has faced criticism from a number of party members for his performance in the last election campaign, but others in his parliamentary caucus — and prominent union leaders — have lined up behind him in advance of the vote.

A leadership election could be triggered if 50 per cent plus one delegate at the convention supports such a move.

Blaikie has pointed to former prime minister Joe Clark's leadership review in 1983. Clark received 66.9 per cent of support from Progressive Conservative delegates at the party's convention that year, but considered it insufficient.

He subsequently called a leadership race and lost the contest to Brian Mulroney.

"Seventy per cent is a number I think one might want to aspire to. It's not a necessary number, though. I think that should he get under 70 that means he can stay, but there will still be work to do," she conceded, signalling he will have to do more to reach out to party members to earn their support.