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Brown calls UK general election for May 6

  • Labour has held power for 13 years, Brown faces first election as PM
  • Opposition Conservatives leads opinion polls, although gap has closed in recent months
  • Conservatives need huge swing to oust Labour from power
  • For the first time the leaders of the three parties will square up in a series of TV debates

London, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has confirmed May 6 as the date of the UK's long-awaited general election, triggering a fierce political battle for control of the country.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, Brown said he had met Queen Elizabeth earlier Tuesday to ask for parliament to be dissolved next week.

Brown's announcement sounds the starting gun on a month of frenetic campaigning that is likely to be dominated by arguments over the state of the economy, public spending cuts and the size of the UK's national deficit.

Brown said he was seeking a "clear and straightforward mandate" to carry on with the job of stabilizing and rebuilding an economy still reeling from the global financial crisis.

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"Over the next few weeks I will go round the country -- the length and breadth of our land -- and I will take to the people a very straightforward and clear message: Britain is on the road to recovery and nothing we do should put that recovery at risk," he said.

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Brown, who spent the afternoon campaigning in the southern county of Kent, is facing the electorate as Labour Party leader for the first time since he became prime minister in 2007.

Although the center-left party has been in power for 13 years, its three previous election victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were won by Brown's predecessor as leader, Tony Blair.

Polls ahead of the election campaign have consistently shown Labour trailing the center-right Conservative Party, led by David Cameron.

But the gap between the two has narrowed in recent weeks and the the Conservatives need a huge swing of more than 100 seats to win an overall majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.

"The Conservatives tend to build up huge majorities in seats they win but do not spread their votes so well across the country," said CNN political contributor Robin Oakley.

"As a result they could score five points higher than Labour in terms of their share of the national vote and yet still see Labour returned with the biggest number of seats in parliament."

For the first time in a British election campaign, the leaders of the three main parties will square up in a series of televised debates -- an unknown factor which could boost turnout and have a major effect on the final result, according to Oakley.

Why the UK faces election with a difference

Two polls Tuesday showed the Conservatives in the lead. A YouGov poll for The Sun newspaper found the Conservatives with 41 percent support and Labour with 31 percent.

A second poll, conducted for The Guardian newspaper by ICM, found the Conservatives enjoying a smaller lead -- 37 percent compared to Labour's 33 percent.

Speaking to supporters in London on Tuesday, Cameron said the UK faced "the most important election for a generation."

"If you vote for the Conservatives you are voting for hope, you are voting for optimism, you are voting for change and you are voting for the fresh start that this country needs," Cameron said.

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Cameron, who later visited patients at a hospital in central England, said the UK could not afford "five more years of Gordon Brown" and pledged his party would campaign on behalf of the "great ignored."

"They work hard, pay their taxes, obey the law. They're good, decent people -- they're the people of Britain and they just want a reason to believe that anything is still possible in our country," he said.

The UK's third major party, the Liberal Democrats, could also play a crucial role in the election in the event that no party achieves an overall majority -- a so-called "hung parliament."

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said the election offered voters more than a straight choice between Labour and the Conservatives.

"This is a choice now between the old politics of the two old parties and something new, something different, which the Liberal Democrats offer," he said.

With 345 MPs -- or lawmakers -- Labour goes into the election defending a working majority of 56 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives, who need to win at least 326 seats to gain a majority, have 193 seats.

The Liberal Democrats have 63 seats while nationalist parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hold small numbers of seats.

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