UK's Brown pledges new direction for Britain

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BOURNEMOUTH, England, Sep 24 (Reuters) Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged today to set Britain on a new path to meet its people's rising aspirations and give them the skills to compete in a globalised world.

Speculation had been rife that Brown could use his first speech as leader to the annual conference of the ruling Labour Party to announce an early election, but Brown made no mention of a vote.

Instead, he gave an impassioned declaration of the values he believes in and of the challenges he believes Britain must face up to in the years ahead.

''Today the rising aspirations of the British people summon us to set a new direction,'' he said. ''Up against the competition of two billion people in China and India, we need to unlock all the talent we have.'' ''The country that brings out the best in all its people will be the great success story of the global age,'' he said.

He said he wanted a genuinely meritocratic Britain, putting people and their potential first.

The five-day conference in the seaside resort of Bournemouth has been hit by a bout of election fever as Brown's wide lead in the opinion polls fuels talk that he could call a snap election, perhaps as soon as October -- some three years early.

Brown, who replaced Tony Blair as prime minister three months ago, has refused to rule out an election this year, although he now says he is focusing on his job.

Sources close to Brown say he will not decide on an election until after the conference. Labour will be bidding for an unprecedented fourth consecutive term at the next election.

TOUGH STANCE Brown took a tough stance against Islamist militants, saying ''there should be no safe haven, no hiding place anywhere in the world for al Qaeda and terrorism''.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, where British troops are based, Britain would work for security, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction, Brown said, stressing London would hold fast to its partnership with its ''closest ally'' Washington.

Britain would not rest until there was a ceasefire and a lasting political settlement for the Sudanese region of Darfur, he said.

Announcing a drive to improve public services in Britain, Brown said the government would offer one-on-one tuition for 300,000 children in both English and maths.

He reaffirmed his goal of abolishing child poverty in Britain in this generation and said the government planned to increase house-building to 240,000 new homes a year to meet a shortage of affordable housing.

Brown pledged the government would respond with ''calm vigilance'' to turbulence sweeping the financial markets. A credit crunch led to the first run on a British bank in a century last week.

He set out steps to both punish and prevent crime and announced a crackdown on binge drinking and under-age drinking.

He said his government planned to take the state-run National Health Service into a new era by tailoring its services to individual patients.

REUTERS GT RK2100

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