UK parties clash on crime amid election speculation

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BOURNEMOUTH, England, Sep 27 (Reuters) Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party pledged a tough stance on crime and offensive behaviour today, claiming the high ground in what will be a crucial battle if Brown calls an early election.

''I've zero tolerance of anti-social behaviour,'' Home Secretary (interior minister) Jacqui Smith told Labour's annual conference.

''I've zero tolerance of homes being broken into or bags being snatched to feed a drug habit.'' A rash of shootings and stabbings of teenagers in inner cities as well as thuggish behaviour on British streets has driven law and order to the top of voters' concerns, polls show.

Labour and opposition Conservatives are battling to convince voters they have the best policies on law and order, which is set to be a central issue in an election campaign.

Sources close to Brown say he will decide after the Labour conference, which ended today, whether to call a snap election in October or November.

Brown, who replaced Tony Blair as prime minister in June, does not have to go to the polls until 2010 but some Labour politicians are pressing him to take advantage of a commanding lead over the onservatives to seek his own mandate now.

A Labour Party advertisement for new staff has fuelled election speculation. A Labour insider said the party had to be ready whenever Brown called an election and that the advertisement did not imply an imminent vote.

In a move calculated to appeal to Conservative voters, Justice Secretary Jack Straw announced he would review the law to give more protection to citizens who intervene against suspected criminals.

Many Britons are outraged that people who tackle burglars breaking into their homes can be prosecuted if they are considered to use ''excessive force''.

CHILD'S MURDER Concern over youth crime soared after 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot dead in Liverpool last month. Three teenagers have been arrested in connection with the murder.

Labour has been stung by Conservative leader David Cameron's charge that social disorder was widespread in Britain because of family breakdown and poor discipline in schools.

Cameron has called for tough penalties but says Britain must also take steps to strengthen families and communities.

Rejecting Cameron's jibe of ''Anarchy in the UK'', interior minister Smith hit back by saying the theme tune for the Conservatives' annual conference next week should be another song by 1970s punk band the Sex Pistols, ''Pretty Vacant''.

She accused the Conservatives of inciting fear and alarm and of ignoring progress the government had made in fighting crime.

Violent crime was at its lowest for a decade, she said.

The Conservatives' law and order spokesman David Davis accused Smith of being ''in denial''. ''Noone believes violent crime is down,'' he said in a statement.

The Conservatives, who have fallen as much as 11 percentage points behind Labour in the polls, got a boost from recent events according to The Daily Telegraph.

The newspaper said businessman David Whelan had promised the party one million pounds because of his anger at the government's ''failure to tackle crime'' following Jones's murder.

Reuters PD DB2144

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