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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks question during question period in the House of Commons on Feb. 16.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The federal New Democrats have concluded that their poor performance in last year's election campaign was a result of failures at multiple levels, including the lack of a strong and simple narrative and the fact that they were ill prepared for a debate about a Muslim face covering.

A team led by party president Rebecca Blaikie, who spent seven months travelling the country to analyze why the NDP fell so far behind its competitors and to determine ways to create better conditions for the next vote in 2019, released the report of its findings on Thursday morning.

"We failed to represent the kind of change that Canadians desired," the report says. "Instead our campaign presented a choice for cautious change," including a promise to balance the budget, which many New Democrats did not understand given the perceived inequality of income across Canadian society.

The report also says the campaign was "not nimble" in its reaction to attacks by other parties, party members did not understand why Leader Tom Mulcair refused to participate in some debates, and the NDP was inadequately prepared for the debate on the niqab.

Mr. Mulcair, who has said the niqab issue was the defining moment of his political career and that he does not apologize for standing firm on what he believes to be a matter of human rights, saw his popularity plummet in Quebec after a leadership debate in which he said women should be allowed to wear a veil at citizenship ceremonies.

"While members are proud of our principled position, many questioned why the campaign was unprepared for the intensity of the debate and lacked a plan to shift campaign coverage back to our offer for Canadians," says the report.

The New Democrats entered the 11-week election campaign in August as front-runners in a tight race, with most polls giving them a slim lead over the Liberals and the Conservatives. In mid-September, the parties were in a three-way tie. But, starting about Sept. 20, the NDP began to fall behind. When the votes were counted , the party had dropped from 95 seats at dissolution in the House of Commons to 44.

Among the casualties were some of the most prominent New Democrat MPs, including Peter Stoffer, Megan Leslie, Paul Dewar and Peggy Nash.

There has been no apparent resurgence since the vote. A poll by Ekos suggests that the NDP is sitting at a dismal 11.7 per cent in popular opinion; according to the pollster, "voters do not appear particularly interested in what Thomas Mulcair and the NDP are offering right now."

Ms. Blaikie's report says planning for the next election should begin immediately – the party has a biennial convention scheduled for next week in Edmonton where delegates will be asked to vote on whether they are happy with Mr. Mulcair's leadership.

It says that the party's campaign team should be in place at least two years in advance of the fixed election date and that a campaign plan should be presented to the party's election planning committee a year before the vote. The new process would include a six-month review of that campaign plan.

In addition, Ms. Blaikie and her team recommend more direct engagement with the grassroots to keep them informed about the development of the campaign's platform and electoral strategy. And they say the party needs to rebuild its voter engagement capabilities with a focus on youth and marginalized communities.

The NDP says the report was based on insights gained at more than 500 meetings, three telephone town halls that drew 21,000 people, and online surveys with 23,000 people.