WATFORD, England â Jeremy Corbynâs opposition Labour Party may have come in second in the British elections on Thursday, but the results amount to a stunning triumph for a far-left leader who many believed was headed for political oblivion.
An exit poll showed Labour poised to gain seats as the Conservatives fought to maintain a majority. The early results, which could be subject to major revision as votes are tallied, testify toÂ Corbynâs remarkable campaign, which turned around expectations thatÂ Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister, would demolish his party.
The exit poll showed the Conservatives in first place with about 314 seats in the 650-member Parliament but indicated Mayâs party might fail to win a majority. Labour appeared to gain more than 30 seats, with a projected total of 266.
âWhatever the final result,Â we have already changed the face of British politics,â Corbyn said in a statement early Friday.
Because Labour was preparing for a crushing defeat, the outcome suggested by early returns willÂ be cast by Corbynâs supporters as a clear victoryÂ for the embattled leader and the leftist ideas he champions. The election result may paradoxically be seen as Labourâs death knell by those who want a new direction for a party that has not won a general election in 12 years.Â
âWhat the early results mean is that Corbyn has got more life in him than anybody might have thought,â said Steven Fielding, a political historian at the University of Nottingham and an expert on the Labour Party.Â
âHeâs lost, but it means that heâs probably safe from an immediate effort to get rid of him. Itâs Theresa May who now has no capital with her party.â
James Morris, a pollster who used to work for Labour, said the partyâs performance was a result of Corbynâs âdisciplined populism.âÂ
âLabour went into the campaign 20 points behind and, if this exit poll is borne out, [will] finish it gaining ground on the last election and with a chance of forming the government,â Morris said.
Before he won an upset leadership victory two years ago, Corbyn, 68, had spent three decades as a rebellious rank-and-file lawmaker. His political roots lie in the labor movement and the national campaign against nuclear weapons.Â
He brought aÂ worldview to Labourâs helm that distinguished him from the centrist leaders who preceded him, promising to deliver âsocialism of the 21st century.â That included such goals as nationalizing the rail service,Â pumping billionsÂ into the National Health Service and raising taxes on the rich.
Corbynâs vision is a far cry from that of past leaders likeÂ Tony Blair, who won three general elections but ultimately moved the party away from its working-class base.Â
In the mold of Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who mounted an insurgent bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, Corbyn sought to harness the forces of populism from the left.Â
He also capitalized on fresh doubts about May, who seemed untouchable seven weeks ago when she called the election in a bid to strengthen her majority ahead of negotiations over Britainâs departure from the European Union. She faltered as the race came to a close this week, her poll numbers dropping as Britain suffered its third seriousÂ terrorist attack in as many months.Â
Meanwhile, Corbyn began the campaign with historically low favorability numbers. A punching bag of the British tabloids, the far-left firebrand has been dogged by charges that he is sympathetic to militant groups, such as theÂ Irish Republican Army, which played intoÂ widespread unease about his steadiness and judgment.Â
But he rose in the polls as May was forced to reverse herself on central campaign promises, such as a plan to make major changes to how the elderly pay for their social benefits. Meanwhile, Corbyn proved effective on the stump, and tapped into the enthusiasm of youth.Â
âPeople thought he was useless, incompetent and extremist,â said John Curtice, a leading British pollster. âHe ends up turning out a better manifesto than the Conservatives, and he can campaign well enough. Those who are not unsympathetic to the Labour Party have said heâs not so bad after all.â
Still, many voters were wary about handing him the premiership in a singular moment for Britain, as it prepares to cut itself loose from Europe.
During a stop in Watford, a commuter town north of London, on the final day of campaigning, Corbyn hardly mentioned Brexit, instead casting the election as a choice about whether the state would lift up the vulnerable.
âWhat would this country look like with another five years of Tory government?â he said, describingÂ longer lines at hospitals and larger groups of people shut out of housing.Â
He jeered at predictions that the campaign would be a âwalkover,â saying, âPeople underestimate the common sense of ordinary people in this country.âÂ
Sue Utting, 70, labeled herself a âBlairite,â and admitted her concerns about Corbynâs electability, but said he had won her over.Â
Corbyn was not just teeing off against May. He was just as much seeking to quiet voices of dissent within his own party, which has been tornÂ by parliamentary infighting.
After the BrexitÂ campaign last year, in which Corbyn mounted a lackluster defenseÂ of European integration,Â party members passed a vote of no confidence in him. About two-thirds of his party cabinet resigned, as the leader aimed to stamp out a coup. Names of alternative leaders circulated.Â
Corbyn was later reelected as leader with the support of the partyâs broader membership, reflecting a split between party officials and the base.Â
Whereas the election once seem destined to be Corbynâs wake-up call, it instead may force his critics to regroup.
âI would be pessimistic about anybodyâs chances of getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn,â said a former senior Labour aide, who asked not to be identified to speak candidly about internal party matters.Â
âI understand the frustrations with Jeremy, obviously,â the aide said, but the mood within the leaderâs camp will beÂ âwe didnât win it this time, but boy weâre on track.â
And analysts said Corbynâs opponents, as much asÂ they quietly insist they could have won the election with a different leader, do not have a clear strategy to replace him, making such an outcome unlikely.
Because Labourâs manifesto energized its voters â the young in particular â the party is not likely toÂ change course on a policy level, said James Tilley, a political sociologist at the University of Oxford and a co-author of âThe New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class.â Many of Labourâs progressive promises are indeed popular, he said, and the opposition party is poised to make up ground if the Conservatives stumble in Brexit negotiations.Â
Still, he said, there are longer-term challenges, foremost in maintaining the partyâs unruly coalition â ethnic minorities, young people, pockets of the working class and educated, middle-class professionals.Â
âLabour has been handicapped by the fact that it just isnât the early â80s anymore,â
said Geoffrey Evans, Tilleyâs Âco-author. âTheir working-class base is not big enough for them to win, and when they reach out to the middle class, they lose their working-class people.âÂ