18 Nov 2014

Little takes union path to leadership

8:02 pm on 18 November 2014

Andrew Little's path to the Labour leadership followed active involvement in student politics and then a long stint as a trade union official.

New Labour Party leader Andrew Little has said the caucus will back him.

New Labour Party leader Andrew Little has said the caucus will back him. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Mr Little quit Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union head in 2011 to stand for Parliament, and support from the unions, including the EPMU, played a crucial part in his election as leader today.

Mr Little was born in New Plymouth on 7 May 1965 and was educated at New Plymouth Boys' High School.

It was his connections to the provincial city which prompted Mr Little to stand for the New Plymouth seat in 2011 and this year but he was soundly beaten by National MP Jonathan Young on both occasions. He did not help his cause in the seat by remaining living in Island Bay, Wellington.

Once he finished school, Mr Little studied law, philosophy and public policy at Victoria University in the 1980s. It was here he became active in student politics, campaigning against New Zealand's student loan scheme.

He was elected president of the Victoria University of Wellington Students' Association and in 1988 and 1989 led the New Zealand Students' Association.

After graduating he began working as a lawyer for the Engineers' Union, which eventually was to merge with other unions to form the Engineering, Manufacturing and Printing Union (EPMU). His initial work included dealing with accident compensation claims and employment law issues.

Making his mark

He quickly made his mark in the union and was appointed its general counsel, or chief lawyer, in 1997. Two years later he was appointed assistant national secretary and then elected national secretary in 2000 when Rex Jones stood down.

Mr Little set about modernising the union as it faced myriad challenges. Some of the traditional workplaces it represented were shrinking or closing down as new technologies made some jobs redundant. As well, employers had been consistently taking advantage of more employer-friendly labour laws to undermine union representation at their workplaces.

Under his leadership, the union drove work on better workplaces and improving productivity in partnership with businesses. In 2005 it ran a five in 05 campaign, calling for a 5 percent wage increase for the workers it represented.

But not all Mr Little's initiatives were welcomed by traditionalists in the union movement.

He had long been touted as a future Labour MP, and possibly leader, and was encouraged to stand for Parliament in 2008. But he resisted, saying instead he had unfinished business at the EPMU.

In 2009 he did, however, take on a senior leadership role within Labour when he was elected unopposed as its president.

He stood down as president to run for Parliament in 2011. Despite losing in New Plymouth he was elected as an MP courtesy of being number 15 on Labour's party list. He again lost the electorate vote in 2014 and only just scraped in as a list MP when Labour's vote fell disastrously low.

Had Labour's party vote been much lower than 25 percent, Mr Little would not even have been in Parliament to contest the leadership.

Now he must convince not just his fellow MPs - more of them voted for Grant Robertson than him - but, more importantly, the wider public that he is a genuine leader.

Labour will be pinning its hopes on him to connect with the hundreds of thousands of people he says once voted Labour and are looking for a reason to do so again.

Union defends backing

EPMU national secretary Bill Newson tonight defended the role unions played in electing Mr Little.

He said the union vote accounted for 20 percent, and Mr Little did not get across the line because union delegates voted for him.

He dismissed as nonsense the suggestion Mr Little's support was boosted by union block voting, saying the four candidates were all strong and the results were always going to be close.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs