LONDON (Reuters) - It was always a long shot - “Kebab King” Ibrahim Dogus only stood as a Labour Party candidate in one of the richest parts of London to offer voters an alternative.
As he expected, Dogus, a Kurdish restaurateur who organizes the British Kebab Awards, was defeated in Thursday’s general election.
But after a strong showing in a parliamentary seat long held by the governing Conservatives, he sees a chance of a Labour revival under Jeremy Corbyn, the leader who many in the party had written off as an out-of-date socialist.
Dogus sharply closed the gap on the sitting member of parliament from Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives in the Cities of London and Westminster constituency - home to Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and the British capital’s financial centre.
“The seat is now a marginal for Labour to gain,” Dogus told Reuters after raising Labour’s share of the vote by 11 percentage points to 38.4 percent.
Dogus is willing to credit Corbyn. “Jeremy’s proven everyone wrong ... he ran such a brilliant campaign,” he said. “We’ve got a new dawn for social democracy ... and I will carry on fighting.”
Corbyn, a 68-year-old leftist, has not only survived attempts by some members of his own party to oust him but has also now led Labour to unexpected electoral gains against the Conservatives - something that could change or at least temper the direction of talks May says she will lead to leave the European Union.
“I think we’ve run a great and positive campaign and made a difference,” said Dogus.
Just seven weeks ago, any positive messages from what was a deeply divided Labour party were few and far between.
A newcomer to running for parliament under the red banner of Labour, Dogus was careful not to criticize Corbyn, crediting him with being the first lawmaker he met when, at 17, he spoke about his Kurdish heritage at his college.
But Dogus, who arrived in Britain in his teens from Turkey, was also keen to make his campaign about himself, using his experience with setting up and running small businesses to win over voters, rather than focusing on the Labour leader.
Dogus didn’t go as far as some Labour candidates who distanced themselves from Corbyn - one even wrote to reassure voters that she understood their misgivings about Corbyn, who the Conservatives bet would be “toxic” to Britons due to his associations with militant groups.
If he was to some, almost 13 million Britons who voted Labour on Thursday disagreed.
Corbyn was elected Labour leader almost two years ago on a groundswell for change - a shift mirrored across Europe, where center-left parties have lost support to anti-establishment movements that have emerged since the 2008 crisis.
But he was soon challenged by more centrist lawmakers, who felt Corbyn’s left-wing agenda was too radical a departure from the business-friendly centre ground that handed them power in 1997 under Tony Blair.
After months of slurs bandied between both sides of the party, several centrist lawmakers launched a coup against Corbyn last year. But they failed to unseat him, forcing some to quit the party and others to decide against running when May sent parties scrambling by calling an early election.
After lagging behind in the opinion polls in the run up to Thursday’s election, several murmured about the possibility of unseating Corbyn after the vote if he had done badly - a suggestion that has been put to rest, at least for now.
Chuka Umunna, a one-time favorite for the leadership and a center-left lawmaker, quit Labour’s top team of advisers soon after Corbyn became leader, clashing over membership of the European Union, which the veteran leftist was cool over.
“He’s confounded lots of people’s expectations, my expectations, his expectations,” Umunna told ITV television. “I think he has done a really, really good job getting across a hopeful optimistic vision and set of policies.”
Corbyn drew large crowds to his events, offering voters a promise to build a fairer society through policies such as raising taxes for the richest 5 percent, scrapping university tuition fees and investing 250 billion pounds ($315 billion) in infrastructure - plans the Conservatives said were uncosted.
A source close to the leader told Reuters that while May tried to make the election about Britain’s departure from the EU, Labour offered “policies that people overwhelmingly support, policies they have supported for 30-40 years” but had not had a chance to vote on.
The source also said that while May stuck to the campaign discipline dictated by her election team, the Labour leader was kept “front and centre” of Labour’s campaign, holding public rallies and taking questions from all comers.
Surprised at the amount of detailed policy Labour had prepared, some in May’s campaign team also expressed a grudging admiration for Labour’s strategy, which they said had managed to speak to many of those who voted for Brexit last June - just the electorate that the Conservatives wanted to target.
Instead of heading to the Conservative party, many Brexit supporters turned instead to Labour, attracted by the pledge to renationalise the railways, mail and some energy providers, the Labour source said.
For Dogus, who arrived in Britain in 1994 aged almost 14 and took his first job in a Turkish restaurant in the upmarket Mayfair of his constituency, he is keen to build on his political future.
“I will carry on fighting. I want to see a fairer Britain,” he said. “This was the start.”
(Refiles to show Dogus is a Kurd.)
additional reporting by William James; editing by David Stamp