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Two Labour stalwarts call for secret ballot on Brown's leadership

Two central figures in Britain's ruling Labour Party have called for a secret ballot to be held to determine whether the prime minister, Gordon Brown, should continue as head of the party.

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Gordon Brown's position as head of the UK's ruling Labour Party looked increasingly in peril on Wednesday after two senior party members called for a secret ballot to determine if he should stay in the post.

A YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph on Dec. 30 put Labour trailing behind rival Conservatives by 10 points ahead of a general election that must take place before June of this year.

Many in Brown's party believe Labour's difficulties lie in his leadership, and there has been grumbling behind the scenes over his suitability as prime minister.

Geoff Hoon, formerly Tony Blair's defence secretary, and ex-health secretary Patricia Hewitt have openly broken ranks by publicly calling for a secret ballot to be held among party lawmakers.

However, both are seen as key allies of Tony Blair, and as such are supposedly supporters of Brown as Blair's chosen successor.

Uncertainty in the party a direct election threat

In a letter addressed to all sitting Labour MPs, published on Tuesday in London's Evening Standard newspaper, the two former New Labour heavyweights said uncertainty over Brown's future was a direct threat to the party's prospects in the forthcoming elections.

"Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance," they write. "We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot."

The letter adds: "The implications of such a vote would be clear – everyone would be bound to support the result. This is a clear opportunity to finally lay this matter to rest.

"The continued speculation and uncertainty is allowing our opponents to portray us as dispirited and disunited. It is damaging our ability to set out our strong case to the electorate. It is giving our political opponents an easy target."

'Divisive and damaging'

It is thought unlikely that any secret ballot, which could come as early as Jan. 11, would go against Brown, not least because there is no obvious candidate to replace him.

But the timing of their letter will do nothing to help the beleaguered Labour Party, coming as parties set their battle lines for the election.

Brown supporters said the call for a ballot will only damage Labour's chances.

MP Geraldine Smith described those calling for the action as "cowards and betrayers".

The country's biggest trade union Unite, a major donor to Labour, condemned the ballot call as "divisive and damaging".

Britain's general election has not yet been called by Brown but it is expected to take place in May.

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