Pressure Groups – Undermining or Enhancing Democracy?

The very term pressure group conjures up images of a group of hardened activists, sat in a small room all wearing the same t-shirt with the group slogan emblazoned across it, they sit in the dim light discussing plans of protest and direct action. We think of a highly active, small group, who, in the eyes of many, are attempting to make a change for a very specific cause.

What we perhaps don’t think of are the national and international NGOs who have specific policy and parliamentary lobbyists who have a constant dialogue with the British Government. They push their objectives forward in the best way they can, they secure funding, and they provide a vast wealth of expertise and knowledge to government. In an atmosphere where there is active give and take between government and pressure groups – is this enhancing democracy, because it gives voice to a particular issue or undermining democracy because a small, unelected group has achieved a higher level of influence than perhaps they should have?

But who exactly are we dealing with when discussing pressure group politics? In the first instance we have causal groups who are actively promoting a particular cause – here think of Human Rights groups (such as Amnesty International), animal welfare groups (e.g. RSPCA), food (e.g. Campaign for Real Ale) and Constitutional Reform (e.g. British Humanist Association). On the flip side of that coin we have interest groups – groups that actively represent the interests of a particular group of people – think of trade unions, private corporations, professional organisations (e.g. British Medical Association), international aid & development and lifestyle groups.  There are, of course, crossover groups which promote a cause and represent a group of people – here we must include religious groups (e.g. The Christian Institute), cultural groups (e.g. The Countryside Alliance) and political parties.

The question we must immediately ask is which groups could represent the greatest threat to democracy? There is no simple answer to that question. On the one hand we have insider groups that are ‘closer’ to government; they may be party affiliated and are therefore inherently closer to policy-making. On the other, external groups have the ability and leverage to openly attack government, often made all the more effective if they can mobilize the mass media behind their particular cause.

It has been estimated that there are no more than 100,000 truly committed activists in Britain. With this being, relatively, such a small percentage of the population (approximately 0.2%) we must wonder whether having such a small number of people influencing policy from an unaccountable position is good for democracy. In an era where political party membership has reached an all time low, but in an atmosphere where party politics completely dominates the political landscape, there is a parallel issue which becomes apparent – the vast majority of our politicians are, although ultimately voted for by the public to get them into office, sourced from a rather small pool of individuals.

To diversify for a moment – if we broadly estimate that The Labour Party have 200,000 members and 8700 elected politicians in the UK, then about 4% of the total membership are elected politicians. If we broadly say that the Conservative Party have 100,000 members and about 9000 elected politicians, then a staggering 9% of the party membership are actually elected officials. To draw a parallel – estimating the number of electable offices in the UK at about 23,500 with a population of roughly 60 million, as a percentage, only 0.04% of the population is in elected office, a number which is 225 times lower than the weighting within the Conservative Party and 100 times lower than the weighting within The Labour Party. The saving grace of the party political system is that politicians are accountable and the public have the ability to throw the rascals out at the next available election should they so wish. With pressure groups, if we accept that there are only 100,000 truly committed activists, then it becomes increasingly clear that, from a statistical point of view, this could be an issue for democracy as it is extremely unrepresentative.

But let us look for a moment at how pressure groups can actually enhance democracy. Underrepresented groups can be given a voice – for example, The Gurkha Justice Campaign. Pressure groups can raise awareness of certain issues that otherwise may go unnoticed and they provide government with a vast pool of expertise and knowledge. Some pressure groups, such as trade unions, hold internal elections amongst members to make sure they are representative within themselves. Pressure groups are thought to hold government to account through scrutiny. Pressure groups are also often seen as a ‘way in’ to civic participation for citizens. Tripartite transparent consultation allows for an inclusive, consultative process for decisions that are deemed simply too important to be made by government alone. And finally – pressure groups are always striving towards policy and actually making the government respond actively to an issue – it forces the wheels of government to turn, which surely can only be a positive thing.

There are just as many arguments that highlight how pressure groups can undermine democracy, however. There are concerns over membership – many members of pressure groups are largely thought to be ‘cheque-book’ activists and contributing little above and beyond their monthly donation, with the direction and policy stance of the group being formed by a very small group of individuals at the top of the organisation. In an effort to build effective campaigns, pressure groups can often resort to scathing attacks on government through the media, which may continue to erode (the already rather low) public confidence and trust in government.  The incumbent government will naturally ‘cosy up’ to organisations that support their stance and shun others that do not, leaving some groups ‘out in the cold’. There can be a nature of ‘clientelism’ that may occur when particular sectors are dominated by a few key actors – think of how much influence the big six energy companies must have over energy policy, given that they have a 98% market share over the UK energy market. Some pressure groups with, arguably, small and largely insignificant but media-grabbing issues can dominate a lot of government time and resources (you can think of your own example for this one). Pressure groups now have vastly more members than political parties, which creates an issue around representation.

It is accepted that pressure groups have a large degree of influence over low profile policy as a part of the extensive consultation processes undertaken by local and national government. Consultation enhances democracy through inclusion by bringing in many groups during the consultation period, but this inevitably leads to exclusion because, for all the best will in the world, not every group can always be consulted.

There is a vicious circle at work between pressure groups and government, especially with media grabbing campaigns. No matter how far government responds to a particular pressure group, it is never perceived as being enough because the group must be seen to be continuing ‘the cause’. This leads to an impression of non-delivery of politics, government failure and negative public feeling.

If we accept the concerns surrounding pressure groups, we must ask do pressure groups need regulation? Some manner of regulation would certainly increase the transparency and the groups place within the policy process. Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Oxfam are already more transparent and have signed up to accountability charters, code of conducts and commitments to standards of internal governance.

And finally – do pressure groups, activism, protests and direct action lead us to a place where we become post-parliamentary? In an atmosphere where a public movement is so strong as to cause government to retreat from a policy completely; do we enter an atmosphere where the role of parliament is seen as one where politicians are not elected just to make ‘executive’ style decisions, but to make informed, real-time decisions based on the public mood. If we think back two years to when the government retreated from a plan to sell off public forests in the UK, public reaction was so strong, the plan was dropped fairly quickly. But how can politicians gauge when public feeling is something to be followed and when is it something to be ignored? It is a murky question with no concrete answer – leaving us straddled somewhere between representative and direct democracy. The sad fact is that if selling off of the public forests hadn’t been such an obvious vote-losing policy, and not as terrifically unpopular as it was, it probably would have gone ahead.

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Categories: Global Political Insight

Author:Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a British local politician. He attained his BA (Hons) in English, Drama & Theatre Studies from Royal Holloway University of London before completing his postgraduate MSc. in Democracy & Comparative Politics at University College London. Chris spent two years working in accounting and finance and later as a freelance tutor and facilitator. In addition to teaching, Chris is an active member of the Labour Party – currently co-ordinating a number of by-election campaigns. He has recently completed his postgraduate dissertation - a comparative case study that identified key factors of the member/officer policy-making relationship in English local government.

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