(A re-post of a 2009 article that proved prescient, and provided a glimpse at the new Labour leader's ambition and modus operandi. Read Farrar's latest piece on on the new Labour leader, Why Little may be Prime Minister, here — CK.)
I first met Andrew Little when he was President of the New Zealand University Students Association in the late 1980s.
The organisation was in crisis and at risk of dying. Andrew helped save it, and a reform package was implemented that reduced a staff from 14 (a president, six vice-presidents and seven staff) to a staff of around four (two co-presidents and a couple of staff). The new leaner meaner NZUSA stopped campaigning for Nicaragua, and started focusing on student education and welfare and has been a much more effective beast since.
Andrew then took a job as a lawyer with the Engineers Union. The union over the next 15 years became the most successful in New Zealand. It gobbled up minnows to become the largest, fended off criticism from some hardliners that it was too right wing (this means they would sometimes try to work with an employer instead of destroy them) and achieved some good results for their members.
Andrew became the union's general counsel in 1997, then the assistant national secretary and next year will celebrate ten years as national secretary of the EPMU.
For many years Andrew has also been on the National Council of the Labour Party, representing the union affiliates who provide much of the money and manpower to Labour in exchange for bulk voting rights at conferences.
Some credit the unions get out the vote campaign in South Auckland with the 2005 election victory. Labour was only 2% ahead of National, and NZ First and United Future had said they will support the largest party.
In the disgraceful corruption of Taito Philip Field, Andrew is one of the few in Labour to emerge with his head held high publicly. While the Labour caucus were defending Field as a hardworking MP who was only guilty of working too hard for his constituents, it was Little who was the first to declare that regardless of legality, Field’s actions were morally repugnant to the labour movement. He made the obvious point that Labour should not be supporting a man who was running a slave labour empire preying on illegal and/or vulnerable immigrants.
Now I am no political virgin, so it must be said that it is quite possible this was not actually a case of the union leader defying his own party’s caucus to condemn an errant MP. It would be no surprise if the 9th floor had asked Andrew to attack Field, to give them the ability to change their position on the Mangere MP. But regardless of what happened behind the scenes, Andrew got the credit for being the first senior Labour person to condemn Field. In fact to this day no Labour MP will say on the record that they thought what Field did was corrupt and that he belongs in jail.
Little then became Labour Party President after the 2008 election. Mike Williams had so disgraced himself with his H Fee dirt digging obsession, he had to be hidden from view (Paul Holmes is doing his best to rehabilitate Williams by having him on Q+A every few weeks) and Andrew was acclaimed president without opposition.
Under the leadership of Helen Clark, the parliamentary leader was the supreme leader. There was no question of the party president questioning her in public, or some decision being made she did not agree with. Clark’s great legacy to Labour was the unity it had under her rule.
But Phil Goff is no Helen Clark, and the power of Andrew Little is on the rise. Goff gave an excellent speech to the 2009 Labour Party conference, but what was not reported so much was that Andrew Little also gave an excellent speech. And it was not a nuts and bolts organisational speech but a full political speech. One insider called it a “leadership” speech. They did not mean that in a negative way, as in challenging Goff. But that it was the sort of wide ranging policy and political speech you normally get from the leader. They said it was the first time they had seen Little perform in that role, and were impressed.
We then had the appointment of the new Labour Party general secretary, to replace the long serving Mike Smith. It was widely reported that Phil Goff wanted the crafty John Pagani, but Little prevailed and unionist Chris Flatt got the top job.
Then we had Phil Goff’s Orewa lite speech. Little craftily managed to get the Herald to run a story that reported his personal concerns and political concerns with the speech. And then the next day he walked side by side into caucus with Phil Goff pledging his full support.
This was a win-win. Party activists get the message Little is on their side and he will ensure no more speeches like that. But the caucus is reassured that there will be no split, and the mandatory pledge of unanimous support in the leader is made. Never mind the visual image of the two men walking side by side as equals and co-leaders.
Then we had Wednesday’s vote on Easter Sunday shop restrictions. In the past many Labour MPs had voted (especially at first reading) for bills to change the status quo. In 2006 27 Labour MPs voted for a bill by Steve Chadwick. In 2007 15 Labour MPs voted for a bill by Jacqui Dean. But this week every single Labour MP (except Steve Chadwick) block voted against Todd McClay’s bill to allow local authorities to determine policy for local shops.
What could turn a traditional conscience vote into an effective party? Surely it is no coincidence that Andrew Little is the party president and chairs the committee that determines list rankings. The majority of Labour MPs are List MPs are their survival depends on keeping Mr Little happy. So not one of them (bar Chadwick who could not survive locally if she voted against) dared to anger the unions and allow the public to have their say on the bill at select committee hearings.
It has been a long time since a party president has had such influence on not just the organisation, but on the caucus. And it will not be lost on the caucus that Mr Little has made it quite clear he plans to join them in caucus by the end of 2011 – or before.
No one expects Andrew Little to serve a long period on the backbenches. He will go on to the front bench very quickly. What will be interesting is what exact seat he ends up with on their front bench.
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