(Bloomberg) -- Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn received a hero’s welcome from the Trades Union Congress on Tuesday as the underdog who erased U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s majority in June’s election. Rather than clarify his position on Brexit, he barely mentioned it.
Britain’s main opposition leader was given a standing ovation before even saying a word at the conference in Brighton. He used his speech to reinforce his anti-austerity message but only dedicated a few lines of a six-page address to the country’s divorce from the European Union.
Organized labor and Corbyn’s party are divided over the best approach to Brexit as both fear losing support among blue-collar workers who backed the withdrawal. His decision to focus on pay and government spending cuts follows a pattern of steering away from a topic he’s shown little interest in as he continues to tour the country on a permanent election footing.
A lifelong euroskeptic whose position on Europe has been ambivalent and ever-evolving in the charged political climate, Corbyn is far more comfortable urging his young supporters to join trade unions or railing against tax-dodging billionaires.
He blamed media barons for trying to influence the election. That is something U.S. President Donald Trump -- who Corbyn frequently attacks -- does too in his own country. While on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both infused their campaigns with populism.
“But of course the power of the billionaires, who control great chunks of the media isn’t what it was. They tried to dictate the election result in June with a blizzard of propaganda and millions of voters simply ignored them,” Corbyn told hundreds of cheering delegates.
When he did talk about Brexit, Corbyn couched his comments in the language of class division as he sought to gloss over the splits. May’s Conservatives want a Brexit that serves the interests of the rich and not working people, he said.
“The Tory approach to Brexit is to use the process of leaving to go much further, much faster in that direction and deliver a deregulated free market tax haven on the shores of Europe, underpinned with a race-to-the-bottom trade deal with Donald Trump -- a Shangri La for bosses and bankers but nothing of the kind for everybody else,” he said.
Unions have been reinvigorated by Corbyn’s success and the resulting weakness of May.
The chatter in fringe meetings was how to exploit the circumstances and push for public-sector pay rises and an end to budget cuts. News of a small pay rise for police and prison officers on Tuesday was greeted by demands for more and the threat of strikes and other action by government employees.
“If your opponent is weak and makes little concessions to buy you off, that’s when to push harder, that’s when to put your foot to the floor,” Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, told activists. “Jeremy Corbyn has emboldened people.”
Corbyn committed a future Labour government to ending the public-sector pay cap to give all government workers “the pay rise they deserve and so desperately need.” Unions “must be united in breaking the pay cap for all workers,” he said.
Unions are looking to influence Labour’s approach to Brexit as the party seeks to capitalize on May’s slim working majority in the House of Commons and use the threat of rebellions from her own lawmakers to change government policy.
Corbyn gave mixed messages on Labour’s approach on Monday when he said in an interview with the BBC that he is open to staying in the EU single market before having position clarified by his spokesman later in the day. The official policy is to “achieve full tariff-free access to the single market,” his office said.
The TUC’s general council thrashed out a compromise statement on Sunday after talks to reconcile the different views of its members failed to produce a united motion. The agreed position was to put workers rights at the center of a Brexit deal and keep options open to preserve “tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe to protect jobs,” the TUC said.
“At present we should not rule out unrestricted access to the single market through continued membership outside the EU,” it said.