Concerns have been raised by Labour MPs that if Burnham wins the leadership and Tom Watson takes the deputy leadership, there would be an all-male team at the top of the party. Watson is currently the front runner in the deputy contest.
In a sign that Burnham recognises such a mix would be unappealing, he said that he wanted the party to reflect the country, and that his shadow cabinet would contain a female shadow first secretary of state. The role involves standing in from time to time for the leader of the opposition at prime minister’s questions.
Burnham said: “For too long, Labour’s top team hasn’t fully reflected our country. At times we’ve looked and sounded like a Westminster think-tank talking in a code that the public don’t understand.
“I am going to change that. Labour will look, feel and sound different under my leadership. I will have a front bench full of diversity, different backgrounds and many accents.
“My top team will be 50% women and I will make sure that women hold the most senior jobs, too. I will get to work straight away by appointing a woman as shadow first secretary of state to create a balanced Labour top team taking on the Tories at PMQs.”
Watson has already said that he does not regard the deputy leadership job in the party as being as senior a role as shadow chancellor of shadow home secretary.
Rachel Reeves MP is supporting Burnham and is likely to step in to the shadow chancellor role if he wins. As Osborne combines the role of first secretary with chancellor, it would be likely that Reeves would take on both roles as well.
Burnham made his comments as he joined his leadership rivals – Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn – at a hustings in Birmingham.
Cooper repeated the claim she has made throughout the leadership campaign – that David Cameron has a “a woman problem” and that in electing her the party would “be giving him a bigger problem”.
Cooper told the audience that Labour should set a goal to double the number of black and minority ethnic MPs in a Labour majority parliament. She said: “With over a million ethnic minority voters choosing the Tories at the last election, Labour cannot be complacent. If Labour is not representative of our voters how can we hope to keep their support? More than 15% of Labour voters are from BAME communities but just 10% of Labour MPs.
“If the number of Labour MPs mirrored the proportion of Labour voters there would be at least double the number of Labour MPs in a Labour majority parliament.”
Burnham reasserted his rejection of the government’s academies and free school programmes as a “marketisation” of education, drawing a clear dividing line from Kendall, who went on to challenge him over his support for a free school in his constituency.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, shadow care minister Kendall is expected to make a speech calling on businesses and unions to find new ways to give employees a stake in the workplace. She will say that trade unions should increase their membership in the private sector and that employees should be given a chance to own shares in their employing company, because “if you own something you care more about it. You give more to it”.
This article was written by Daniel Boffey Policy editor, for theguardian.com on Saturday 27th June 2015 13.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010