Women are set to make up almost half of Ed Miliband's top team after he privately urged MPs to elect large numbers of female candidates to his Shadow Cabinet.
New Labour rules guarantee that a minimum of six of the 19 elected places will go to women in next week's contest. But they could gain as many as eight or nine positions following the new Labour leader's intervention.
With places reserved for Harriet Harman, the deputy leader, and Baroness Royall, Labour's leader in the Lords, 10 or 11 of Mr Miliband's Shadow Cabinet colleagues could be female.
A senior MP disclosed: "The word has gone out that Ed wants half the Shadow Cabinet to be women." Mr Miliband was sympathetic during the leadership election campaign to calls for equal numbers of men and women on the front benches. And in yesterday's conference speech he praised the last government for "challenging the idea of a male-dominated parliament" by creating all-female shortlists for Westminster seats.
By the time nominations close this afternoon, more than 50 of Labour's 257 MPs are expected to have put their names forward. Diane Abbott yesterday became the 15th woman to declare her candidacy, alongside the likes of Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint and Tessa Jowell.
Ms Abbott, the first black woman MP, who was a surprise contender in the leadership battle, said she had been urged to stand by activists from all wings of the party. "There is a really strong feeling in the party, in the country, that they want to see diversity at the top of Labour," she told The Independent. "By supporting me they will be supporting a strong performer in the Commons and an effective media performer."
The influx of so many women into the Shadow Cabinet means that some established male politicians could fail to make the cut. Forty men – including nearly 30 ex-ministers – could be vying for just 10 or 11 places. Senior figures such as Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn are certain to be elected – as David Miliband would be if he decides to stand.