Hurrah for Jeremy Corbyn, now safely past the 35 nominations hurdle. And not a moment too soon. The mountain to climb that now confronts Labour demands a refreshing new voice that acknowledges the ideological weakness that has crippled the party over the last decade and is prepared to confront the hard underlying structural issues that are relentlessly pulling this country down, notably austerity, an unaccountable banking sector, a market fundamentalism that has run out of control, a highly damaging privatisation of nearly all public services, and an explosive inequality between rich and poor. Unless Labour presents an alternative vision to the failure of the last decade to confront these central issues, it is hard to see how the party can regain the nation’s confidence, particularly on economic and financial issues.
Labour now faces an enormous task. Unless the party recovers significantly in Scotland, where only 3 SNP MPs have majorities of less than 6,000, it would require a swing of 11.4% in England and Wales to win in 2020. That is actually larger than the swing achieved across the UK in 1997, which was 10.3%. Nearly all the advantages which Labour hoped would see them through to victory on 7 May have evaporated. Contrary to expectation, the party increased its majorities in safe seata but lost out in many target marginals. There are now only 25 marginals with majorities less than 3,000, though the Tories now hold 23 of them. If the Tories now push through the boundary changes which the LibDems vetoed in 2013, which they will, it is estimated that Labour will need some 106 seats to win a majority.
This will be harder than ever given the Scottish debacle, the mishap in key marginals, the decline of centre-left tactical voting, the inequality in funding, and an electoral system that was previously believed to favour Labour but which now favours the Tories. There are other factors too. The introduction of individual registration will enable the new constituencies to benefit the Tories, particularly in urban and socially deprived areas, i.e. Labour’s key zones. The Tories will no doubt also seek to extend the advantage they already have with expatriate voters, who largely vote Tory, by abolishing the current 15-year limit and increasing the right to vote to their whole life, even if they have had no direct connection with the UK for decades. By contrast, trade union members will be required to opt in to paying the political levy, which will widen the funding inequality between the two parties still further.
Huge though these barriers are, they are certainly not insuperable. Labour could still win power, for example, with the support of the SNP and the LibDems if it were the second largest party in a hung Parliament after a swing of 5%. But what matters far more is an ideological re-awakening on the Left and the robustness of a new vision and a commanding narrative to promulgate it. Jeremy Corbyn is the ideal figure to lead that renewal.