The challenge is enormous, and almost certainly insurmountable. The latest opinion polls [Oct 2016] place the Conservative Party 15-16% ahead of Labour, with Labour floundering at below 30% – echoes of 1983 under Michael Foot, when Labour won a derisory 27% of the votes cast. The Conservatives are not widely liked, but they are (often grudgingly) widely respected, primarily because they are seen as competent at governing. Labour, by contrast, is seen as incompetent – particularly economically.
One huge problem facing Corbyn is that many voters still hold Labour largely responsible for the 2008 financial crash (rather than the banks or rampant neoliberalism) due to supposed excessive public spending, and thus feel that Labour is largely to blame for the austerity, stagnant living standards and cutbacks that British people have endured for the last eight years. Although the cuts have been imposed by firstly a Conservative-dominated Coalition government and then a Conservative government, many voters have been persuaded that these cuts were the unavoidable consequence and necessary remedy for years of Labour over-spending and financial profligacy.
Alongside this perceived lack of economic competence, Labour is also widely associated with ‘excessive’ immigration and over-generous welfare provision. The former means that UKIP has made inroads into traditional Labour support among the white working class (blaming immigrants and EU migrants for ‘taking jobs’, driving down wages, exacerbating shortages of affordable housing and over-burdening already over-stretched public services), while the latter perception was strongly reinforced by the Conservatives’ ‘skivers v strivers, shirkers v workers’ rhetoric painting Labour as the Party of welfare scroungers and the lazy or feckless, while the Conservatives depict themselves as the Party of hard-working people who ‘want to get ahead’.
This last point is also problematic for Corbyn and Labour, because in spite of public revulsion at ‘greedy’ bankers, ‘excessive salaries’ in the boardroom and corporate tax avoidance, many voters are more resentful of perceived welfare scroungers and workless (by choice) families in their street. When Labour attacks the top 1% or inequality, Conservatives respond that this is the Left's usual ‘politics of envy’, and that Labour is a threat to those who harbour ambition and aspiration, as well as to wealth creators.
Meanwhile, Theresa May is audaciously adopting a few traditional Left themes with pledges on curbing excessive boardroom pay, promoting workers to company boards, and addressing lack of employment rights or security. If Corbyn were to do this, he would inevitably be attacked as “anti-business”. May’s strategy is integral to her bid to develop a post-Thatcherite (or maybe pre-Thatcherite) mode of One Nation Toryism, which occupies the political centre ground left vacant by Corbyn’s Labour Party. This is where most voters see themselves: pragmatic centrists. These people do not appear to be warming to Corbyn.
Finally, the proposed boundary changes – reducing the number of seats/MPs in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 – will damage Labour’s electoral prospects far more than the Conservatives’. This is because fewer, but slightly larger, constituencies will mean some urban constituencies (frequently Labour strongholds) will be expanded to incorporate nearby suburbs or villages, where Conservative support is much higher. Consequently, in many urban seats currently held relatively narrowly by Labour, the balance will be tilted towards the Conservatives.
It is, to say the least, an uphill struggle for Mr. Corbyn.