Ideas on Europe

Politics as choice

© European Union 2023 - Source : EP © Daina Le Lardic Politics as choice
© European Union 2023 - Source : EP © Daina Le Lardic

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.

Bonjour, Simon Usherwood You are Professor at the Open University and chair of our partners UACES, and we are delighted to have you back for the end of the season!

When we talked for the opening of the season in September, elections were far off. And now, right after the European elections we find ourselves in the middle of national campaigns on both sides of the Channel!

Politics is both something that you can shape and something that happens to you, and both Rishi Sunak in the UK and Emanuel Macron in France have demonstrated this by their decision to call a vote. In neither case did they have to, in legal terms. But they made political calculations that this was their best option. Knowing that a ‘best option’ isn’t the same as a ‘good option’.

For Sunak, while he might have felt that some good news on the British economy would allow him to talk about things getting better, he has only reminded voters that the government in power when those things were getting worse was his own. To be an incumbent is to own the problem, as far as the electorate are concerned.

For Macron, the success of the Rassemblement National in the European elections risked setting up a narrative of the latter as the centre of the opposition in the coming years. By disrupting the normal cycle, he hopes to get voters to reflect on whether Marine Le Pen is actually a realistic choice for the Presidency, or simply someone who gets a protest vote in an election that’s not important, like for the European Parliament.

As if European elections did not matter!

Of course they matter, and politicians know it, but they make choices.

Macron might be a committed European, but it is the French electorate that provides him with his mandate and his power. Yes, there are now a lot of RN MEPs, but there is very little they can do by themselves to shape EU policy. Macron needs to improve his domestic position, so he uses a snap legislative election to refocus attention back to Paris.

Likewise, Sunak faces problems of all kinds – poor public services, weak party discipline and an electorate with very little trust in him and his government – as well as a ticking clock for the general election. Given the situation, trying to make a case for economic results – even if it’s not a very compelling case – is his best shot, if not at winning, then at least at limiting the losses his party will suffer.

And this is the thing about democratic politics: each choice has consequences that will echo through the political system for years to come.

Do you believe both leaders are thinking about what happens in five years’ time?

To some extent, yes. Macron not only has to plan for the next presidential election in 2027, but also for what situation his party will be in after that. Either in government or in opposition, how does he ensure it holds together and embodies his politics once he is no longer President?

Similarly, Sunak might have accepted his party is going to lose power next month, but that means opportunities for a new leadership to take form and compete next time, probably in 2029. How does he leave things best placed for it to have some fighting chance then, ideally still promoting the kinds of policies he wants?

Democratic leaders know they will not always win. And they know they need to be prepared to manage frustration

So do we, as voters!

That’s right. Democracy is a wonderful school of how to deal in a civilised way with frustration. More often than not you don’t have a majority for policies that are important for you. And when our side wins, while it is tempting to use the opportunity to punish those we dislike, we need to remember that someday the boot might be on the other foot and the frustration we took out on others might then be taken out on us.

Democracy gives us a good incentive to speak up for what matters to us, but also to treat other opinions with respect and recognise that we have a system that lets us come back again and again to make our case.

Let’s hope for our two forthcoming elections that both winners and losers will know how to manage triumph and frustration in the way that democracy deserves.

Many thanks, Simon Usherwood, chair of our partner UACES, for sharing your thoughts with us. I recall you are professor at Open University.

An interview conducted by Laurence Aubron.