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Polls spread gloom for Britain's ruling Labour

Opinion polls cast gloom over Britain's ruling Labour Party at its last annual conference before a general election which the opposition centre-right Conservatives are forecast to win.

Senior Labour figures were describing their party as the underdog in the election due by next June, but telling party members gathered in the southern English city of Brighton not to give in to defeatism.

Only one in three Labour members of parliament (MPs) believe they will be the largest party after the election, a poll by Ipsos MORI showed.

On average centre-right Conservative MPs expected to win a majority of 41 in the 646-seat lower house, while Labour MPs on average forecast a slim Conservative majority of only 7 -- raising the specter of a hung parliament, a nightmare for markets craving decisive action to cut a record budget deficit.

A poll of voters in the Independent newspaper said that Labour would perform better under any of eight alternative leaders to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It put Labour 15 points behind the Conservatives.

Brown, the former finance minister who replaced Tony Blair in 2007, has struggled to win public affection. The 58-year-old Scot is often portrayed as dour and former cabinet colleagues have criticized the way he treated them.

Brown now finds himself at the centre of a row with the BBC after a presenter with the state broadcaster asked him about political gossip that he took prescription painkillers, a sensitive subject because it feeds rumors that Brown might cite health as a reason to step down before the election.

Brown, who is blind in one eye after a rugby accident as a teenager, denied he took pills and his supporters rounded on the BBC for its questioning.

“What many people find very surprising is that the BBC of all people should pick up from the blogosphere and give these slurs and smears this credence,” Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told Sky News.

Justin Lewis, a professor at the Cardiff School of Journalism, said that while presenter Andrew Marr may not have crossed an ethical line, he still strayed into territory most found unsavory.

“Whether he takes painkillers or not I think is probably a private matter for Gordon Brown. He should be taken to task for his record as a prime minister, not for whether he takes pills.”

Finance Minister Alistair Darling picked up on the party's “bash the bankers” line on Monday as Labour seeks to portray itself as the party of the many, against a rich elite it says the Conservatives would favor.

“We won't allow greed and recklessness to ever again endanger the whole global economy and the lives of millions of people,” he said, announcing a crackdown on bonuses. (Reuters)