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Britain's ruling Labor faces setback in by-election

PRIME Minister Gordon Brown faces a test of his leadership this week when a looming by-election defeat in the eastern English city of Norwich could reignite a plot to oust him.

A poor result for his ruling Labor party threatens to embolden party dissidents who last month conspired to unseat Brown, before their rebellion fizzled out.

"If Labor lose the seat it will reopen questions about Brown's leadership," said Justin Fisher, Professor of Political Science at Brunel University.

With the centre-right Conservatives well ahead in national opinion polls, Brown is expected to wait until the last moment to call a parliamentary election -- which must be held by next June at the latest -- in the hope that an economic upturn might restore voters' faith.

"If that's not starting to be reflected in poll ratings then Labour may take the view that, if they are going to lose anyway, it's better to try and limit the damage with a new leader rather than be wiped out," Fisher said.

Labor politician Ian Gibson sparked next Thursday's by-election by quitting the Norwich North seat in anger over the party's decision to bar him from standing again.

Gibson, a popular former academic, had held the constituency with a comfortable majority since Prime Minister Tony Blair swept Labor to power in 1997.

But despite denying he had broken any rules, Gibson was ousted for allowing his daughter to live rent-free in a London apartment funded by parliamentary allowances and then selling it to her below market rates.

Expectations are now so low in Norwich following Gibson's resignation that if Labour avoids coming third behind the Liberal Democrats or Greens it will be regarded as a success.

Bookmakers are confident 27-year-old Conservative candidate Chloe Smith will win the seat, inflicting a damaging political blow to Brown, although the result will have little immediate impact on his 63-member parliamentary majority.

On the streets of Norwich, a university city in an area with strong farming and tourist sectors, many believe 70-year-old Gibson was axed for rebelling against the government on a range of issues.

"The treatment meted out to Ian Gibson was a disgrace," said Labour supporter George Deacon, 47. "He's totally respected in the constituency. He was kicked out because he was awkward, he didn't toe the party line".


Labor's replacement candidate, 28-year-old Chris Ostrowski, said party morale had improved since he was selected at short notice last month.

"There were certainly feelings of unhappiness, but the local party recently has been fantastic, since the selection they've been absolutely brilliant," he told Reuters.

The Conservatives still have to prove that they can translate strong poll ratings into success at the ballot box as they seek to end 12 years in the Westminster wilderness.

Their candidate, who would become the youngest member in the current parliament, is promising to be squeaky clean following a public furore about expenses that has hit all the main parties.

"I will publish all my expenses online, will give them unredacted to local newspapers, ask local auditors to look over the books once a year, and not claim for food, furniture or various other fripperies," Smith told Reuters.

"People are very angry about the expenses scandal. There are a lot of people in this by-election who are looking for a fresh start," she added.


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