Howitt was raised in a single-parent family, living with his mother in a council house. He was educated at a comprehensive school before going on to study at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, from where he graduated with a BA degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics in 1982. He later added a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Studies from the University of Hertfordshire in 1992.
After graduating from Oxford, Howitt worked in Harlow as a volunteer organiser for four years when he moved to become a disability rights worker in London until 1994. He has a lifelong interest in disability rights.
Peace, democracy, human rights, the preservation of life - it is a privilege to represent our great party dealing with these great issues of our time.Richard Howitt - Eastern Regional Labour Party Annual Conference
Between 1983 and 1995, Howitt served as a councillor on Harlow District Council. This included three years as Leader of the council between 1991-1994. During this period he led ground-breaking work related to the assessment of local government’s environmental impact.
In the 1987 UK general election, Howitt was the Labour Party candidate in Billericay, but with only 19.4 percent of the vote, he came third behind the Conservative Teresa Gorman and Social Democrat Michael Birch. Billericay is staunchly conservative, with the party holding the seat since 1966.
Howitt was a member of the Labour Party's National Policy Forum between 1994 and 2016 and a member of Labour Party Britain in the World Policy Commission since 1997.
From 1994 Howitt has also been Honorary Vice-President of the UK Local Government Association and Chair of the South and East Economic Development Strategy Association.
Howitt was also an Election Observer, working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories, in the former Yugoslavia, and in Sierra Leone.