1980 New Zealand Labour Party leadership election

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1980 New Zealand Labour Party leadership election
Labour L Logo.png
← 1974 12 December 1980 1983 →
  Bill Rowling, 1962.jpg David Lange (cropped).jpg
Candidate Bill Rowling David Lange
Popular vote 19 18
Percentage 51.40% 49.60%

Leader before election

Bill Rowling

Leader after election

Bill Rowling

On 12 December 1980, a New Zealand Labour Party leadership election was held to determine the leadership of the New Zealand Labour Party. The leadership was retained by former Prime Minister Bill Rowling, who had led the party for the last six years.


Rowling was already seriously considering resigning from politics altogether. After the 1978 election, it was clear that his days as leader were numbered and a leadership challenge was imminent. Earlier in 1980 Rowling sacked Roger Douglas from his shadow cabinet as finance spokesperson for releasing an unauthorised alternative budget, fuelling prospects of a leadership challenge from Douglas' friend David Lange.[1] Many were also weary of the fact that Labour was still polling well below National and just barely ahead of the Social Credit Party, who reached their popularity zenith during the East Coast Bays by-election.[2]


Poor polling results helped instigate a challenge to Rowling.

Bill Rowling[edit]

Bill Rowling had been leader for six years including as Prime Minister in 1974-75 despite Labour defeats in the 1975 and 1978 elections. However, he was able to claim a moral victory in the latter where Labour polled more votes overall than National, although they won fewer seats. His contemporaries argued that Labour’s losses reflected badly on Rowling himself, despite making a substantial effort in rebuilding the party's membership during its time in opposition. Also, the fact that Rowling lacked the backing of the trade unions was crippling in Labour's circles and hampered his leverage in party structure.[1]

David Lange[edit]

After entering parliament in a by-election that received much media attention and helped propel him to the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1979, Lange became Labour's rising star. Lange had always been a critic of Rowling and came "to resent the bloody-mindedness with which he clung to the leadership"[3]


A caucus vote was held on 12 December 1980 where half the attendees supported a leadership change, and the other half opposed. After a silent pause, Rowling added that he too opposed, bringing the total votes for himself to 19 and enabling him to cling on to the party's leadership.[4]

Leadership ballot[edit]

Candidate Votes %
Bill Rowling 19 51.40
David Lange 18 48.60
Majority 1 2.70
Turnout 37 N/A


Rowling remained leader until 1983. He was visibly wounded by the challenge and called Lange's supporters 'nakedly ambitious rats', which he refused to retract.[4] Later, Lange and a group of his core supporters (Roger Douglas, Michael Bassett, Richard Prebble and Mike Moore) became known as the "Fish and Chip Brigade" due to a picture published at the time with the group (minus Prebble) eating Fish and chips in Douglas' office after the vote.[5]

Lange noted the lack of any ideological motives about the election to be odd, stating "It was a mixture of loyalty, distrust, calculation, idealism and opportunism which decided the vote".[2]


  1. ^ a b Henderson, John. "Rowling, Wallace Edward". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
  2. ^ a b Lange 2005, p. 133.
  3. ^ Gustafson, Barry. "Lange, David Russell". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
  4. ^ a b Bassett 2008, p. 57.
  5. ^ "Photo of the Fish and Chip Brigade in 1980 in Douglas' office; Bassett, Douglas, Lange and Moore". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. 13 July 2013. Retrieved 24 February 2015.