David Miliband keeps Diane Abbott in Labour leadership race

• Favourite's backing helps leftwinger reach target
• Five candidates on ballot ahead of summer hustings

With help from unlikely sources, Diane Abbott made it on to the ballot to contest the Labour leadership, where the backbencher – admittedly Cambridge educated herself – will take on four white, male Oxbridge educated ex-cabinet ministers who were all special advisers before becoming MPs.

David Miliband, one of the contenders, transferred his nomination to Abbott, the leftwing MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, this morning, 24 hours after acting Labour leader Harriet Harman did the same in an attempt to get a woman on to the ballot.

Abbott will take on Miliband, his brother Ed, the former schools secretary Ed Balls, and the former culture secretary Andy Burnham, the last of whom also only made it on to the ballot shortly before nominations closed. Burnham shares a similar CV to the other men on the list although protests that he is from the constituency he represents, Leigh. He also went to Cambridge, not Oxford.

Former ministers Jack Straw, Denis MacShane and Phil Woolas were among the other surprise names to deliver Abbott the 33 MP nominations she needed. Miliband and the others made their move after another leftwinger, John McDonnell, withdrew from the race.

Abbott said the numbers all fell into place at the last minute with 30 MPs supporting her at 12.29pm. Independent sources said Woolas was the MP who gave her the last name, just in time for the 12.30pm deadline.

The leftwing nominee and her unexpected rightwing backer shared a tearful moment in committee room 14 as the deadline for nominations came and went and Abbott sat there with a big, noisy and tiring summer-long leadership bid on her hands.

The switch was not greeted with universal acclaim. Paul Richards, a former special adviser to Hazel Blears, tweeted: "Some of us spent decades fighting the hard left. Now our MPs are falling over themselves to get the Campaign group on the ballot. Crazy."

Others predicted bad consequences. "David and the two Eds had done very well to make sure the contest hadn't so far turned into a Blairite-Brownite battle. Diane's entry into the race makes more certain that will now happen because all of her positions are about what Blair and Brown did. She offers no positive vision for the future," said one player.

On the party's first day out of government three weeks ago one of the leadership contenders did not know where the shadow cabinet room was, but they have since crisscrossed the palace, in some cases straining to get 33 MPs to nominate them – a courting process made more difficult by a lack of mobile phone numbers, home numbers and even office numbers for the large proportion of their colleagues who are now new.

The two Milibands were the first to reach 33 and so in the early days more able to concentrate on their offer while Balls and Burnham spent a little more time flying under the radar.

The Milibands have gone for community organising – both appealing to Citizens UK to, firstly in Ed Miliband's case, run a campaign for constituency Labour parties to get the living wage paid by companies in their area, and, in David Miliband's case, to loan two organisers to build a "movement for change" around the country.

Ed Miliband has agreed with the suggestion made by his brother that the party chair should be elected not appointed, a role Jon Cruddas might be likely to get as he proposed it and is sitting this race out.

Burnham agrees the party has been too top down and has spoken of primaries.

There have been disagreements. David Miliband told the party it needed a new leader quickly lest the coalition should collapse, but his younger brother talked about a five-year process with the party rebuilding itself in time for 2015.

The younger Miliband joined Ed Balls in letting it be known he would have voted against the Iraq war that his older brother and the shadow foreign secretary still defend. Ed Miliband's pitch includes a hint he wants to see a larger state, providing more services to more people rather than a smaller one and has said he supports the idea of the 50p top rate of tax on those earning £150,000 staying in place for longer. At the GMB meeting Ed Miliband struck a more conciliatory tone with the members.

His elder brother may have to blunt suggestions he is the Blairite candidate but did not launch a charm offensive, telling the GMB – whose members have a vote each – that if they obsess about issues like secondary picketing they were "kissing the prospect of another Labour government goodbye". He's more left-leaning than that: at an unguarded moment last Saturday, at the launch of his "movement for change" when someone from Citizens UK said that they were derided by the Taxpayers' Alliance as "radical leftists", Miliband heckled "good". But he has been warned he risks being the Hilary Clinton of this campaign. "Ed will be everybody's second preference," said one of his supporters. "David will be their first, or not at all."

Miliband said he believes there was a stalled reform agenda in education, which was and is the brief of Ed Balls. Balls disagrees, saying the party's faithful supporters were turned off by perpetual public sector reform.

Burnham intends to fight to ensure dignity in old age, which when it boils down is public service reform. Balls set out to humanise himself and has done a good job of it. On Saturday afternoon his twitter feed shows him sharing a lengthy lasagne recipe with his followers.

All in some way have sought to define themselves against New Labour – causing Lord Mandelson to pen an article on holiday warning them off this path. Burnham criticised the "prawn cocktail" circuit; Ed Miliband said there was not enough regulation of the city; David Miliband criticised how top-down politics was too controlling in the Blair-Brown era; and Ed Balls criticised his close friend and mentor Gordon Brown on immigration.

Now candidates embark on a gruelling round of hustings during which they will need to come up with a compelling answer on how Labour competes against the coalition. The Tories and Lib Dems are sharing a joke that there is no Labour opposition to oppose them.


Allegra Stratton, political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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