How Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn Can Win by Losing the U.K. Election

6 minute read

Jeremy Corbyn is once again defying his critics, reinforcing supporters’ claims that he is underestimated, overly criticized, and an indomitable campaigning force.

As leader of the Labour Party, the 68-year-old is also the head of the Opposition in the U.K., but only his staunch leftwing and populist supporters have ever really treated him with respect. Disliked politically by many of his own lawmakers, who failed to dislodge him in a coup attempt last year, for taking the party too far to the left since his shock leadership win in 2015, Corbyn has been deemed unelectable by most political commentators.

British Prime Minister Theresa May certainly thought so, unexpectedly deciding to call a General Election in an effort to increase her slim majority of 12 seats ahead of the start of Brexit negotiations this month. At the time, the Conservatives were ahead of Labour by as much as 21% in the polls and Corbyn was routinely crushed by May in personal ratings. A collapse in local elections on May 5 inspired talk of a landslide victory of 100-plus seats by the Conservatives, or “Tories,” when the U.K. takes to the polling booths tomorrow.

But a strange thing has happened since. Corbyn the campaigner came to the fore, while May made a series of dreadful mis-steps and u-turns, most notably on “social care,”or welfare for the elderly.

Corbyn has narrowed the poll leads to the extent that YouGov has forecast a hung Parliament, where no single party can govern with a majority. Most polls still favor a comfortable Conservative victory – ICM gives May’s Party a lead of 11% – but they have all tightened and there is little doubt Corbyn and his team have run the superior campaign of the two major parties.

Labour’s non-Corbynistas, dubbed ‘the moderates’, even though their political views vary substantially, fear the worst possible outcome: the loss of around 50 seats, but a strong enough campaign to make sure Corbyn, or a hard-left successor, retains control of the party.

Roy Hattersley, who was Labour’s deputy leader in a previous struggle against the party’s hard left in the 1980s, wrote in the New York Times only a month ago that his party “faces the biggest crisis in its history”. Having once described Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”, Corbyn was viewed as weak on security. Following the London terror attack on Saturday, however, Corbyn has successfully torn into May over 20,000 cuts to the police force made during her seven years as Prime Minister and Home Secretary, or interior ministry.

Now, Hattersley admits to TIME, “Corbyn has done much better than I expected. He appears to have taken a more benevolent line than usual and is more moderate than usual, for example in his answers on terrorism … He’s capitalized on a societal feeling of anti-establishment and I don’t mean that as a criticism.”

The benevolence Hattersley sees in Corbyn hasn’t been the assessment of Britain’s influential right-wing newspapers, who launched stinging attacks on him throughout the campaign — but especially on the day before voting, with headlines branding the Labour leader and his allies “apologists for terror” and investigations into his “jihadi comrades.”

But polling expert Peter Kellner says Corbyn’s “relaxed” television performances have impressed voters who might have read he was too leftwing to govern. Kellner adds: “Nobody thought there was going to be an election for some time, so people were not in politician watching mode for some time. Then they got to look at him on television and through his campaigning rather than reading stories of him being extreme left.” His reputation for sticking to his principles has enthused supporters that turn up in their thousands for his rallies, which is unique for a British party leader in recent years.

Jo Tanner, a political strategist who is best known for running the successful London mayoral campaigns of Conservative Boris Johnson, says: “Expectations were set low for the Labour leader.” Basically, she adds, so long as he could “turn up and not trip over” it would be seen as a positive.

Tanner acknowledges that Corbyn’s team has been savvy in getting him to hold rallies in areas where Labour enjoys its core support. She argues: “His campaign has been played deliberately in terms of T.V., with pictures of him surrounded by thousands of supporters. That shows voters he is popular, so it shows there is nothing embarrassing for them about supporting him as well.”

That core support will likely staunchly defend Corbyn’s right to remain leader, should the result go the way most polls predict. Indeed, he enjoys a massive lead over the Conservatives among young people and their feverish backing has helped Corbyn turn Labour into the biggest political party in Western Europe by membership. “Assuming a Conservative victory, Corbyn supporters will say he merits a second chance,” Hattersley says.

A senior Labour moderate warns against false optimism. “We’ve had peak Corbyn, this is as good as it’s going to get,” the source says. “Corbyn’s side will argue ‘we did this in two years, imagine what we can do in another five years’ [when the next election would be due], but the best realistic picture this time is we’re going to lose seats. It’s going to be very, very hard to get rid of them.”

Corbyn is at his best at rallies, having honed his skills for years leading demonstrations against nuclear proliferation, corrupt overseas regimes and the war in Iraq. Tanner says this makes him similar to other populist figures like President Donald Trump and Johnson, who “speak off-the-cuff and feed off the audience.”

Ever the socialist, Corbyn bristles at his movement being compared to Trump, but they are the two most unexpected heavyweight political figures to have emerged on both sides of the Atlantic for years.

Corbyn is unlikely, though, to join Trump in seizing power tomorrow. But he might just have done enough to earn one more crack at 10 Downing Street.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Mark Leftly / London at