Britain's Brown stirs election fever in party ranks

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BOURNEMOUTH, England, Sep 24 (Reuters) Prime Minister Gordon Brown pledged to improve Britain's free schools and hospitals today in a speech to the party faithful which fired their enthusiasm for an early general election.

''I will not let you down. I will stand up for our schools and hospitals ... I will stand up for a strong Britain,'' said Brown, making his eagerly awaited first speech as leader to the ruling Labour Party's annual conference.

The conference, always an important event for the party rank-and-file to debate policy, was especially important this year as it gave new leader Brown a chance to set his stamp on the party, led for the past 13 years by Tony Blair.

Brown's sober speech marked a sharp contrast with the more theatrical style of Blair, who stepped down after a decade as prime minister in June.

His speech went down well with Labour members who gave Brown a standing ovation at the start and end of his speech.

''I thought it was electric, he's made my heart beat fast,'' said Nicole Murphy, a 44-year-old nurse.

Brown has focused on improving public services, putting less emphasis on Britain's military involvement in Iraq which is deeply unpopular with many Labour Party members and helped force Blair from office mid-way through his third term.

Brown devoted just a paragraph of his speech to Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of British troops are deployed, pledging to work for security, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction in both countries.

He said there should be ''no hiding place anywhere in the world for al Qaeda'' but said it would take more than military force to win the struggle against Islamist militants.

ELECTION FEVER The five-day conference in the southern English resort of Bournemouth has been dominated by election speculation. Brown's wide lead in the opinion polls has encouraged talk that he could call a snap election, perhaps as soon as October -- some three years early.

A poll in The Sun newspaper today showed Labour with an eight-point lead over the opposition Conservatives, who have been weakened by infighting over their leadership and policies.

Brown made no mention of any election plans. But his hour-long speech smacked of an election manifesto as he appealed to all classes, age groups, the left and the right.

He promised one-to-one tuition for 300,000 children in English and maths, grants for 600,000 university students, regular free medical checkups and fast-track treatment for women with suspected breast cancer.

Several Labour parliamentarians backed a snap vote.

''It was good visionary stuff. It needs a bit of flesh on the bones but it's the right sentiment for a manifesto. Let's go for it,'' said lawmaker Ian Gibson.

Another legislator, Joan Walley, also favoured an early poll: ''He's got a really clear long-term vision. He'd be his own person with his own premiership.'' Sources close to Brown say he will not decide on an election until after the conference.

Conservative leader David Cameron called the speech ''uninspiring''. ''It's clear that Gordon Brown has no answers to Britain's problems. The Conservatives do and that is why we have all along called for a general election and continue to do so today. We are ready and waiting,'' he said in a statement.

Brown gave short shrift to a planned European Union treaty where he is resisting calls from the Conservatives as well as some Labour members, unions and media for a referendum.

Brown said only that he would insist that British demands were met in final negotiations on the treaty.

Reuters GT VP0020

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