U.K. election 2017

Jeremy Corbyn wins, even when he loses

Labour did not win the U.K. election, but its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, owned the night

Britain's Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn gestures as he arrives to vote in the general election at a polling station in London, Thursday, June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Britain’s Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn gestures as he arrives to vote in the general election at a polling station in London, Thursday, June 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Jeremy Corbyn has won, even in a loss.

As the early morning hours creep in in the U.K., and the results slowly trickled in, the exit poll stood as an indication of at least the trend of things, if not a final result. To be blunt, it was a shocker.

And it held. Theresa May and her governing Conservative Party managed to win only 317 seats, down 13 from when the campaign started, and shy of a majority. Overall, the Tories look deeply weakened.

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But across the ideological divide, Labour, under Corbyn, have far exceeded expectations. They did not gain a majority, nor will they be the party with the most seats in the House of Commons, but the exit poll estimate of 266 seats held true for them, as well. With 649 of 650 constituencies counted, Labour sit with 261 seats in the House of Commons – a gain of 32 seats. It was a stunning turnaround.

MORE: Theresa May loses, even when she wins

In April, when May called for the election everything looked primed for a Labour blowout. It was, the polls indicated, primed to be an annihilation of both the party and everything it stood for under Corbyn. In April, the Conservatives led Labour by as much as 24 points in polls, by one count, and one poll taken only days before the election showed while 54 per cent of respondents favoured May as prime minister, only 15 per cent felt Corbyn was up to the job. By the looks of things, a significant portion of the electorate may have changed its mind.

For Labour the turnaround does not only mean a stronger party in the House of Commons, it will likely mean a stronger party, full stop. The story of Labour since the 2015 election result and the subsequent leadership race that saw Corbyn take power has been one of unending internal division. As recently as May 10, sources were leaking to the Daily Telegraph that, supposedly, as many as 100 Labour MPs were prepared to split from Labour and form a new party following what was then assumed would be a disastrous finish.

That animosity was almost entirely created by the man who has now led Labour to its most amazing electoral turnaround in recent memory: Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn became leader almost by accident in 2015, as the outsider candidate in a field of four. The MPs whose nominations he gained in order to stand for the leadership did it—as two wrote later for the Guardian—in order to have “a genuine debate within the Labour party.” In other words, they never expected him to win.

But he won, thanks in part to a groundswell of support from a new category of Labour supporters that had been created by former leader Ed Miliband in an effort to, in short, democratize the party, and weaken the trade union hold on candidate and leadership races. The so-called £3 supporters (the nominal fee it cost to become a supporter and have a say in the leadership race) became a strong base on which Corbyn built his leadership campaign (though, in the end, he may have won it all the same by a slim margin had only full members voted).

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn listens as Britain's shadow Chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell delivers his keynote speech the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Britain, 28 September, 2015. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Party leader Jeremy Corbyn listens as Britain’s shadow Chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell delivers his keynote speech the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton, Britain, 28 September, 2015. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

Corbyn’s far-left agenda quickly annoyed many within the party, including some of those MPs who’d propped up his leadership gambit in the first place and later said it was a decision they’d come to “regret.” The sense was that his priorities were not those of either the party, or British voters. Corbyn was an easy target for the relentless, and largely centrist or right-wing U.K. press, who seized upon his past socialist activism to suggest that he was a subversive element that had made its way into the mainstream by accident. He was, for instance, almost immediately branded as “disloyal” when he allegedly didn’t sing the national anthem at Second World War commemoration ceremony.

And so it went for nearly two years—the Labour party all but torn asunder over Corbyn’s controversial leadership. His hold on power became so tenuous in the summer of 2016 that he was the subject of a confidence vote among Labour MPs—a vote he lost badly (172-40)—only to win a subsequent leadership challenge yet again, this time by an even wider margin than the first time.

Corbyn’s poll numbers at the start of this election were therefore nothing new. No Labour news was good news, it seemed. That has changed now. Even the bad news is good news: Labour lost, but it was no loss at all. For a party led by a man many of its own members disliked to enter a snap election campaign and increase its seat count in the House is rare, if not unheard of.

Many Britons have clearly endorsed Corbynism, and his left-wing version of Labour, in ways few would have ever expected. The Labour policy platform is rife with ideas—like nationalizing energy services and rail—that would make economic markets squirm; the pound dropped immediately on the announcement of the exit poll result. But never mind, perhaps. Barring a coalition deal, which Corbyn has rejected, Labour will not be the government.

Why Corbyn’s message appears to have resonated will be a question that will only be answered definitively with time. Did enough former U.K. Independence Party voters decide Labour’s social policies were a higher priority than their promise for a so-called “softer” Brexit? Was the surge entirely due to a bump in youth voter turnout—or just turnout, overall? Was it thanks instead to a rejection of Theresa May—that had it not been Corbyn leading Labour, the party might have done even better? In the hours following the vote, it was still unclear.

No matter why so many Britons decided to endorse Corbyn’s policies, the overall message is that a lot of people like him. And the Labour party is likely hoping they, and others still, could learn to like him more.

Corbyn, recently thought to soon be out of a job, now seems very secure in it, at least until the next election, even if the odd grumblings continue along the party’s back benches. And if Corbyn is to hang on to his leadership until the next election (which, if Thursday’s vote results in a hung parliament, might be as soon as later this year), his historical ability to stare down certain defeat and emerge victorious all the same ought to be top of mind for anyone who challenges him next.

This post has been amended to reflect the final election result.

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