London (CNN)If, as the exit poll predicts, the UK election denies Theresa May her majority it is an extraordinary victory for her opponent Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour leader started this campaign with a deficit in the polls of around 20 points, and his chances written off by most experts, political commentators and the press. Even many of his own MPs — some of whom tried to unseat him last summer — didn’t think he had it in him to be Prime Minister.
The result is not yet final and it still looks like May’s Conservatives will still have the most seats, meaning they will be able to start talks to form a coalition. But the fact that Corbyn is expected to have robbed May of her overall majority is a significant endorsement from voters for his brand of left-wing, populist politics. The fact that he has defied all expectations and caused a major electoral shock will draw comparisons with Donald Trump’s surprise victory.
Like the president, the Labour leader is anti-establishment, unconventional and populist. The difference is Corbyn is on the left-wing of the Labour party — far to the left of its former leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair. It remains unlikely that Corbyn will be Prime Minister, but he has scored a moral victory over his critics in parliament, his own party and the press.
His manifesto — a raft of leftwing policies with renationalization of industry at their core — has been well received by voters. Stories about Corbyn’s past support for the Irish Republican Army and Hamas are failing to inflict serious damage. And in the wake of the suicide bombing in Manchester and the attack on London Bridge, the Labour leader’s perceived weakness on security and counter-terrorism don’t seem to have damaged him in the court of public opinion.
But as the votes are counted, it is remarkable how Corbyn has managed to change the narrative and turn the election into a competitive fight.
This shift has been achieved, say commentators, in part because Corbyn does not behave like an ordinary politician. While other party leaders adapt their policies to the changing times, his views — including opposition to Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, and in favor of higher taxes on the rich to pay for healthcare and schools — have not changed in more than 30 years.
Corbyn was raised in rural Shropshire in central England and was educated at a local grammar school before studying at a North London college, from where he left after one year, failing to finish a degree. After working for a number of trade unions he got his first break in politics at the age of 25 when he was elected to a council seat in Haringey, a borough in north London.
Nine years later he became Labour MP for the London seat of Islington North, at the same time Tony Blair entered Parliament. Their career paths could not have been more different: while Blair rose through the Labour Party to become its leader in 1994 and prime minister in 1997, Corbyn remained a backbench MP, rebelling against Blair in hundreds of votes in the House of Commons and most prominently as a vocal critic of the Iraq war.
It was after Labour’s second electoral defeat in a row, in 2015, that Corbyn’s name was put forward for the leadership contest as a “token” leftwinger, but was at first not taken seriously. He went on to win with nearly 60% of the vote.
In the same way Bernie Sanders experienced an insurgent tide of popularity from younger voters, 68-year-old Corbyn is most popular among 18-34 year-olds.
The success of Corbyn’s anti-establishment pitch — he saw off a challenge from the party’s centrists in 2016 — may also invite comparisons with the US president. Like Trump, the Labour leader is prone to outbursts of tetchy, erratic and stubborn behavior.
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