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British PM faces fresh test in by election

LONDON, July 24  – Voters in one of the most deprived parts of Britain go to the polls in a by-election on Thursday, potentially holding the fate of their fellow Scot, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in their hands.

Brown’s Labour Party is defending a 13,507 majority from the 2005 general election in the Glasgow East constituency. In ordinary circumstances, a vote there would not cause party leaders to lose much sleep.

But Labour has lost two by-elections in recent months — one a safe seat in northwest England and another where they trailed in fifth behind the British National Party — and is keen to avoid another failure.

Brown, who has plumbed record low poll ratings in recent months, is also under pressure because of the rising cost of living and has been criticised for his administration’s recent economic record and his own leadership style.

One of his party’s former spin doctors in Scotland has said that Brown, born and brought up in nearby Govan and barely a year into the job, will be challenged for the leadership if they are defeated in Glasgow East.

Opinion polls and political betting indicate that Labour will retain the seat but its margin of victory could be slashed.

A Progressive Scottish Opinion poll for the Scottish Daily Mail published at the weekend predicted that Labour would win 52 percent of the vote, with the main challengers, the Scottish National Party (SNP), on 35 percent.

Compared to the last general election, that represents an 11 percent fall for Labour and an 18 percent increase for the SNP, which won a narrow victory in 2007 to become the largest party in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

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"If this poll is right, Glasgow East looks set to save Gordon Brown his job," John Curtice, a professor of politics at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University, was quoted as saying by the newspaper.

He has also been encouraged by a separate poll of all Scots that suggested for the first time that his pro-independence party was in the lead on voting intentions for a general election, which is due before May 2010 at the latest.

The YouGov/Daily Telegraph survey on July 11 also indicated that 49 percent of Scots want the SNP to win Glasgow East, compared to 33 percent for Labour.

The Glasgow East constituency, whose boundaries have been redrawn since the 2005 general election, has been given a rare national profile in recent weeks, with much made of the predominantly inner-city area’s acute social problems.

In 2002, a welfare charity found the Shettleston area of the constituency to be the most deprived part of Britain, based on United Nations ratings assessing life expectancy, employment, income and literacy.

Salmond has noted that in one part of the constituency, male life expectancy is 53.9 years — 15.1 years less than in war-torn Iraq. Others point out that in the Gaza Strip, men can expect to live to 70.5 years.

Unemployment is well above the 5.2 percent national average, while there are high rates of alcoholism and drug dependency.

Such issues have been high on the agenda on the campaign trail, alongside local concerns about law and order and post office closures and national ones like welfare benefit reforms, housing tax, plus high petrol and energy bills.

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