For pro-Europeans, or for soft Eurosceptics who do not desire complete economic collapse, the general election can be said to be marked by two surprises. One is the relative irrelevance of Brexit as a topic to the election debate – while it does constantly come up as an argument along the lines of “who do you trust to conduct negotiations with the EU more?”, it also appears to have hardly if at all affected voting patterns aside from the UKIP meltdown.
Another is, of course, the way the two main parties’ policies on Europe both seem to ignore existing reality. On the one hand, you have the Tory “have our cake and eat it” delusion, which is based on threatening Europe until the EU concedes giving in on its most basic principle, which is that the Four Freedoms are inalienable and if you want access to the EU Single Market, you have to accept EU freedom of movement and a customs union. On the other hand, you have Labour’s policy – or rather, a wonky and confusing absence thereof – which simultaneously contains a pledge to end freedom of movement, a pledge to protect the rights of EU nationals, and only a single reference to the Single Market and Labour’s policy on it at all, which sounds as follows: “We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.” The key word in this pledge, of course, is “retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union” – by including that important word, Labour does implicitly admit the impossibility of negotiating complete, EFTA-style access to the Single Market, without accepting freedom of movement – which they already reject.
A finer eye might note that this basically means that neither Labour nor the Tories commit to single market membership. Both primary parties of British politics have functionally ruled out making Britain a member of EFTA or something along those lines. Basically, people in the UK get a choice between a hard Brexit perpetrated by people who will also ruin the UK’s relationship with Europe, and a hard Brexit perpetrated by those who will be slightly politer and cooperative about it and won’t insult Jean-Claude Juncker on the way out.
That is, that would be the choice if we lived in a two-party system. But, and as difficult as this is for some Labour and Tory supporters both to accept, we don’t.
The current prediction is that if the Tories do lose, what they will lose to is not a Labour victory outright, but a hung parliament. And in fact, in that eventuality lies our primary hope. Actual commitments to Single Market membership, with continued participation in everything that comes as a side effect of it, have been made by all the real third parties in this election: the SNP, the Greens (both the separate Scottish and English & Welsh parties), Plaid Cymru, and the Lib Dems. If there is a strong raft of MPs elected from these third parties, in particular the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru (as the Lib Dems have functionally ruled out supporting Corbyn’s government) these parties can hedge their support of a Labour government on an explicit pledge to seek Single Market membership in an EFTA-style arrangement. Labour would not refuse, as to do so would be to functionally rule out being in power and, seeing as the SNP, Greens and PC will never back a Tory government – both for their vast disagreements and because such a decision would be political suicide for them of a grand scale – functionally prevent the formation of any government, forcing Parliament to dissolve itself again and call a second election. This, in turn, Labour would be hard-pressed to avoid as with the current level of voter fatigue a second election would almost definitely mean Labour losses and a Tory return to power.
If we want a UK that does not leave the European Single Market, if we want reasonable policy on Brexit, the only thing we can do is vote SNP, Green or Plaid Cymru in any seat that these parties either currently hold or have a viable chance of winning – that is, anywhere in Scotland in the case of the SNP, and anywhere where the other two parties come first or second outside of Scotland. In any seat in England or Wales where such a vote would let the Tories in by the back door, that is certainly foolish, and feel free to vote Labour in those. But if Europe is your primary concern, we need a hung parliament, not a majority for either of the two main parties, as alone neither of them has a working strategy for Brexit remotely within the pale of realism. We need a strong pro-European contingent to be Labour’s conscience.