Diane Abbott brings Labour leader hopefuls to six

LONDON (Reuters) - Two more contenders joined the race to lead the Labour Party on Thursday after an election this month ended its 13 year grip on power.

MP Diane Abbott chairs the Sinn Fein "Putting Irish Unity on the agenda" conference, in central London February 20, 2010. REUTERS/Jas Lehal

Diane Abbott, Britain’s first black woman MP, joined the contest, while former health secretary Andy Burnham also said he would stand, bringing the number of contenders to six.

Abbott said it was time to broaden out a contest which critics note has so far focussed on white men in their 40s.

“I am going to run. So many people in the past 48 hours have asked me to put my hat in the ring and I have finally agreed to do so ... I think we can’t go forward with a leadership where there are no women,” Abbott told BBC radio.

Writing in the Daily Mirror, Burnham said: “I am today asking for the support of my colleagues to go forward as a candidate to lead the party I love.”

The Labour party is searching for a new leader to succeed former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who resigned earlier this month after an election defeat.

A Conservative-Liberal Democrat alliance now governs Britain, the first coalition since World War Two.

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A Cambridge graduate and former TV reporter, Abbott is an outspoken MP and a regular political television pundit. She is in her late fifties and became Britain’s first female MP in 1987.

Also a Cambridge graduate, Burnham, 40, said he wanted to tackle Labour’s perceived shortcomings in its policies over immigration, anti-social behaviour, help for pensioners and other issues.

This month’s defeat and the new political landscape it has produced have left the party searching for a new direction.

The frontrunner in the race is the cerebral David Miliband, 44, foreign secretary under Brown. Once an adviser to Blair, he is seen as the candidate of the party’s centrist wing.

His brother Ed Miliband, 40, a former energy and climate change minister, is also standing.

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His supporters say he is a unity candidate who would end years of tension between Labour members more loyal to Brown or his predecessor as prime minister and Labour leader Tony Blair.

Ed Balls, 43, Brown’s right-hand man at the Treasury before becoming education secretary, declared his candidacy on Wednesday, saying he was standing to rebuild the support of voters who mistrusted Labour over issues like immigration and the cost of university education.

MP John McDonnell, 58, little known outside the party, also entered the race on Wednesday, pledging that under his leadership Labour, founded by trade unions in 1900, would return to its roots and advance a socialist agenda.

Labour has given itself four months to elect a new leader. Balloting will run from August 16 to September 22 and the winner will be announced at the annual party conference on September 25.

Reporting by Mohammed Abbas