Twelve months into his job as Labour leader, Andrew Little tells Claire Trevett why he thinks his party is “pretty much on track”.

Labour leader Andrew Little is not known as an expert in fashion but in Scotland last week, he took the opportunity to offer a bit of advice to British counterpart Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn was frocked out in red tie, olive green jacket and blue trousers, Little in a standard suit.

"We got up to go and he said, 'I suppose you don't like having to do this wearing a suit business either, do you?' And I said, 'Oh, Jeremy, most of the people who get to know us only get to know us through the TV screen and don't know us personally, so it's just about cutting down anything that can get in the way of listening to what we're actually saying. If there's a visual distraction people will go for that.' His mouth gaped open and his two young staff were nodding furiously. He looked at them and turned to me and said, 'Were you paid to say that?' So that was my advice to Jeremy Corbyn."

He points out screeds of newstime had been taken up on Corbyn's wardrobe rather than what was coming out of his mouth. Some was positive, but almost all was useless when it came to votes in the bank.


Summed up, his advice was if you want to be a prime minister you have to look like one - business attire, not bedraggled ties and cloth caps.

Little faces some of the same issues as Corbyn - he was elected leader by the rank and file and the unions rather than the parliamentary colleagues he leads. He harks from a union background and one of his first jobs was to make reassuring noises to business.

This weekend is Little's first annual conference as party leader, the first time he will front up to the union members who backed him and the first since last year's election drubbing. Little quite rightly identified that his first challenge was not dealing to Prime Minister John Key - it was dealing to his own party.

By all accounts Little has been a soothing balm on the caucus. He has managed what many believed was impossible - quietened much of the unrest within the Labour camp. Most MPs speak highly of him, his style and his decisiveness. He has set some order in place, calling each MP in for individual sessions a couple of times a year to talk about their portfolios and any issues they might have. One said it was an effective way to build confidence in him. Miraculously, he even managed to staunch leaks from within caucus. The Trans Pacific Partnership is the most polarising issue Labour has faced. What is astounding is not that there is a difference of views in caucus, but that very little of that internal conflict has spilled over into the public arena.

Little says he reads far and wide on leadership styles - from other political leaders to business leaders and sports leaders such as Sir Alex Ferguson. He points out democracy gives him a disadvantage sports coaches do not have. "It's the whole thing about taking a group of people and turning them into a high-performing team. That's what politics is like, but you're not like a sports coach where you can tell people you're in the team or out - you have to deal with what you've got." He also analyses organisations that fail "to see why. That's equally important."

Labour in NZ will not be the only ones looking at new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's win in Canada for lessons. But Little points out the situation Trudeau faced in Canada was not a carbon copy for New Zealand. "I think the difference there is they had a government that was looking tired, that was looking autocratic, that was manipulating sittings of Parliament to suit itself and I think the Canadian public just found that distasteful."

He seems oblivious to his tacit acknowledgment that the National Government here was none of those things. When it is pointed out Trudeau's campaign had a slogan of 'hope and change', Little quotes Sarah Palin. "Ah - the hopey-changey thing. That's what Sarah Palin called Barack Obama."

One of the criticisms of Labour is that it suffers from a dearth of hopey-changey stuff. Little has taken to the opposing part of Opposition with relish - lashing out at everything from the flag referendums and pandas to the economy.

Jennifer Marshment-Lees, a Auckland University expert in political marketing, says that is one of the problems. "[Little] needs to stop criticising everything the National Government do. The voters voted them in, so if you keep criticising a party that is still relatively popular and respected then you're criticising the voters."

She pointed to "peripheral" examples such as the flag as well as bigger issues including the TPP, talking down the economy and Labour's gloomy response to the return to surplus. "Hitting a government on its main strength is a bit stupid."

She also pointed to Labour railing against the deployment of trainers to Iraq. "Andrew Little started with negativity and he should have acknowledged it's a difficult decision for a Prime Minister."

It's a view Labour Party member and political commentator Josie Pagani shares. "There is no political movement in history that's ever won without being hopeful. Think of Martin Luther King or Justin Trudeau. At the moment it feels like Labour's message is, 'New Zealand is going to hell in handbasket, the Chinese are coming to get us, your lives are miserable and, by the way, you're fat. Vote for us.' It's just not going to work."

Little's chief of staff, Matt McCarten, has undertaken some interior decorating in Labour's offices. The artwork from the parliamentary collection has been replaced by framed photos and political pamphlets of historical Labour Party events. McCarten hasn't glossed over the history in his choices - one features the fish and chips brigade, the photo of David Lange, Michael Bassett, Roger Douglas and Mike Moore eating fish and chips after an unsuccessful attempt to roll Bill Rowling. There is Arnold Nordmeyer preparing to deliver the "Black Budget" of 1958. Others feature themes modern Labour still campaigns on - housing and jobs. Several reference major Labour policies of the past: Rogernomics, the state house programme and the nuclear free legislation.

Little had set aside a year to get the internal issues under control and says next year will be about exploring new "positive" policy ideas. But don't expect too much too early. He is wary of the pickpockets on the other side. "The Government just picks stuff up that might look good or work well, pulverises it and calls it their own."

He points to paid parental leave, which National increased in the Budget, and expects to see shades of Labour's flexible business tax plan emerge in the next few weeks.

The word "dour" has often been used about Little. His advisers are taking a leaf out of Key's book by pushing him toward "soft" media - the commercial radio slots, comedy shows and women's magazines - in a bid to show his more human side. But while Key's slot on Radio Hauraki went viral courtesy of his admission about weeing in the shower, few noticed Little's own turn in the same segment when he admitted to killing small animals. (He says he went possum and rabbit hunting in the past and was a good shot at school.)

Little has spent time travelling the country meeting voters and businesses. He claims the only centre he has not yet visited is Invercargill - a "top priority next year".

Marshment-Lees questions whether soft media is right for Little, but says listening was a critical part of Trudeau's success. "He spent a good year listening to the Canadian people. And that's what Andrew Little has tried to do. But crucially [Trudeau] was also seen to be listening and what built up was an image of listening that I don't think we've seen from Labour and Andrew Little yet."

She thinks Labour would be best to turn the "dour" into a virtue. "They haven't conveyed that he's serious, intelligent, hard working, that he's going to deal with the serious issues, that's he a good negotiator. He mustn't try and be like John Key because if he does, he can't compete."

Josie Pagani holds a similar view: "He doesn't have to be Justin Trudeau, he can be Andrew Little and still be totally authentic."

Little says the polls are where he expected at this point.

"If you think about where we've come from and two terms which have been somewhat difficult for us, I'm OK with where we are at. Clearly we still have a lot of work to do, but we are pretty much on track." He does not believe his own recognition levels are too low. He has the evidence for this from a rather unscientific pint poll at the Walkabout pub in London. After the Rugby World Cup final he went to the Walkabout "and lots of people bought me a beer".

As the photographer arrives, Little is in a conundrum about whether to wear a tie. The shirt he has on is one he usually wears without a tie. Then he is reminded of his advice to Corbyn and grabs the tie "because Labour is consistent in everything it does". There's a wry grin.