Labour's relief as Diane Abbott joins leadership ballot

By Iain Watson
BBC political correspondent

image captionMs Abbott reached the 33 nominations after John McDonnell quit the race

On Tuesday night it appeared as though the next leader of the Labour Party was going to be called Miliband, or Ed - or both.

Only three hopefuls had overcome the hurdle of gaining the support of one in eight of their parliamentary colleagues, 33 MPs, to get their names on the ballot: David Miliband, his brother Ed, and another Ed - Ed Balls.

All three are Oxford-educated men in their 40s who had served in the last Labour government.

On Wednesday morning the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham scrambled over the finishing line by getting the last pair of nominations he required.

So the field had broadened to include a Cambridge-educated man in his 40s who had served in the last Labour government - albeit one who points to his non-metropolitan upbringing on Merseyside.

'Big tent'

Finally another Cambridge graduate garnered enough support to join the contest proper.

When the left winger John McDonnell withdrew from the contest this morning he hoped his largely left-wing backers would transfer their support to Diane Abbott who, last night, had the support of just eleven of her fellow MPs.

But in the end that still was not enough and she needed a "big tent" of support to get through. But this tent - like any other - is a temporary structure and one which is set to collapse.

image captionThe Miliband brothers were the first to get onto the ballot paper

Among her nominees is a rival candidate, David Miliband, who offered Diane Abbott a helping hand to broaden the debate - and indeed the race and gender mix - but who, of course, ultimately has no intention of voting for her.

The former Europe minister Denis MacShane has similar reasons for offering his nomination, and the party's acting leader Harriet Harman, who also nominated Ms Abbott, has said she will not vote in the final contest to find Gordon Brown's successor.

And the former home office minister Phil Woolas made it clear to Diane Abbott privately that he would only nominate her if she was one vote short of the threshold.

While there is a sense of relief today in the party hierarchy that this three-month long contest will not be an all-male affair, there may be some criticism that Diane Abbott's inclusion in the final five is tokenistic.

TV pundit

The last-minute surge in her support had nothing to do with MPs being won over to her point of view, or even to her personality.

On the left of the party some still seethe at her decision to send her son to a fee-paying school.

More broadly across the party, there is some unease at her second career as a BBC TV pundit.

image captionMr Balls has distanced himself from the decision to invade Iraq

So will her inclusion on the ballot do any more than make the Labour Party feel a little better about itself, that it isn't simply dominated by 40-something men closely associated with either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair?

The leader of the GMB, one of the biggest Labour-affiliated trade unions, Paul Kenny believes having a left-wing voice in the contest will sharpen the debate and force the others to answer questions they would otherwise have wished not to address.

Gordon Brown's former parliamentary aide Jon Trickett says it is helpful to have a candidate who did not serve in the last cabinet, and who might be more willing to explore Labour's past mistakes as the debate will not simply be about choosing a new leader but about the party's future direction.

Diane Abbott herself says she has been inundated with messages of support from the electorate and has a real chance, but it is difficult to see her win widespread support among the "selectorate" of Labour MPs, MEPs, party members and trade unionists.

Personal pitch

Instead what we are likely to witness over the next few months, at an exhaustive series of hustings, is an attempt by the four former cabinet ministers to differentiate themselves from each other.

This process has already begun with Ed Balls, the shadow education secretary, distancing himself from the Iraq war, and coming up with proposal for limiting immigration from inside the European Union.

image captionMr Burnham says he wants to reconnect with the voters Labour lost

Ed Miliband, who wrote the party's last manifesto, is placing himself firmly, but not too far, to the left of his brother - campaigning for a "living wage"', higher than the national minimum wage introduced by Labour.

The shadow foreign secretary David Miliband is doing more to defend the party's record in government but is concentrating on how to transform the nature of the Labour Party, with more say for members and more campaigning in local communities.

Andy Burnham too may suffer a little from appearing like a "continuity candidate" but he says his mission is to reconnect with voters who felt Labour was no longer listening to them - working class people worried about job prospects and immigration.

His pitch will partly be personal - arguing, privately at least, that the brace of Milibands do not look or sound different enough from the coalition's Cameron and Clegg, and that Labour needs to speak in a voice that resonates with its own supporters.

Civil liberties

With such a long contest, though, the candidates will not be able to set the own agenda entirely.

They will have to respond to the Budget within a fortnight and how they react might well define their campaigns. Would they argue for alternative cuts, agree with some of the coalition's proposals or denounce just about everything the government does?

And as the new government tries to portray itself as the champion of civil liberties, the candidates will be faced with taking Labour in a more liberal direction - potentially sweeping up Lib Dem supporters disillusioned by their party's support for the Conservatives - or believing Labour's traditional supporters would prefer more weight to be given to security than liberty.

One debate is likely to take place on the sidelines rather than at the hustings, whether the threshold for nominations - at 12.5% of Labour MPs - was set too high and whether it should be reduced to prevent the spectacle of politicians apparently nominating candidates whose views they do not really share.

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