What determines the success of pressure groups?
Success can be measured in a few ways. Not just through changing/influencing government policy, but also getting an issue discussed or changing people’s perceptions of an issue. A few factors determine the success of pressure groups:
Wealth: Major corporations and their interests potentially have an enormous amount of influence. This is because they may provide many jobs (and investment) in the UK, so the government cannot put these jobs at risk by ignoring the demands of the company. Wealthy interest can afford to have influence in the sense that they can pay full-time lobbyists to work on their behalf.
Size: if a group has many members, it can claim to represent public opinion, so may be more influential. The bigger the group, the more money it may have in subscription fees, so size and wealth are often linked. Organising campaigns becomes easier with thousands of members. Size, however, is usually secondary in importance to economic power (the CBI is more powerful than the Trade Union Congress, for instance, despite being much smaller in membership).
Organisation: the more well-organised and effectively led the group or interest, the more influence it is likely to have. Interest groups tend to be a bit easier to organise than cause groups, whose membership can be very scattered and diverse. Good leaders of groups are politically skilled, have contacts in government, have well-developed presentational skills, and a positive public profile. Examples of pressure group leaders include the former director of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who campaigned for better quality school meals.
Government views: groups are far more likely to have an influence if the government is in broad agreement with their aims. If this is not the case, the group is destined to be an outsider. Business groups and interests have historically enjoyed more influence under Conservative governments, whilst trade unions have had more power under Labour governments.
Public support: groups with high levels of public support can expect to enjoy more influence than groups that only represent the views or interests of a minority. A good example of this is the 38 Degrees group, who gained half a million signatures on a petition opposing the proposal to privatise England’s forests. As a result of this, the government abandoned the proposal in February 2011.
Opposition to the group/interest: groups may have more or less success depending on whether there is opposition to their aims, and how strong it is. The Countryside Alliance successfully delayed and modified proposals to ban hunting with dogs, for example.
38 Degrees and social media - the increase of pressure group power
38 Degrees is an example of a wide, ‘umbrella’ group that uses social media and other tactics to attempt to effect change. The group was set up in 2009 __and has around 2.5 million members. The success in stopping the privatisation of England’s forests was a notable success for the group. The group organises online petitions for, potentially, any issue, for example, the prevention of privatisation, tackling online bullying, stopping the closure of A&E departments, down to stopping the use of palm oil in banknotes. The number of signatures gained indicates the strength of support and may pressurise the government to act, as seen in the above example. This group is a good example of how social media can be harnessed to influence the government. Thousands of people can show their support for an issue/cause without having to leave their home. Demonstrations become much easier to organise, information can be disseminated more easily and quickly, and new protest movements have formed as a direct result of social media Promotional/cause groups have been increasing in power, with over half the groups currently in existence having been created since __1960. Such groups have more ‘access points’ to have an influence, for example, devolved governments, the effect of the Human Rights Act (there is now legal scope to challenge laws), and through the EU.
Are pressure groups good or bad for democracy?
Arguments in favour of the idea that pressure groups and other interests are good for democracy include the following:
- They allow public participation in politics between elections and allow government to gauge public views between elections
- They allow minority groups and interests to have their say
- They are becoming increasingly effective methods through which people participate in politics, so strengthening democracy
- They educate the public on particular issues (especially seen through the use of social media campaigning)
- They allow for a more plural distribution of power- many different groups and interests can have an influence in the UK political system
Arguments against the idea that pressure groups and other interests are good for democracy include the following:
- Groups and interests that are already powerful have their power enhanced (those with lots of wealth and/or large memberships). Groups which are difficult to organise therefore end up with little or no representation- for example the elderly, the mentally ill, and asylum seekers
- The power that groups and interests wield could be argued to be non-legitimate. As they are not elected, pressure groups are not accountable, and often have no democratic structure. It could be argued that they do not have the right to influence the policies of an elected government
- Group influence tends to take place behind the scenes- in corridors, in offices, away from the public eye. Elected Parliament may, therefore, be bypassed, as the real policy-making is taking place elsewhere
- Although groups often represent the minority, this may mean that their interest takes precedence over the majority. It could be argued that such groups and interests have too much influence considering the size of their support
- Evaluate the extent to which pressure groups and other interests can exert influence. (30 marks - a minimum of 3 arguments for and 3 against)
- Your answer should include: Ministers / Lobbying / Parties / Opinion / Wealth
Other collective organisations
Think tanks:__ groups of experts brought together to discuss and offer solutions to particular policy areas. They usually have particular political beliefs, for example, the right-wing Adam Smith Institute had an influence on the Thatcher government of the __1980s. The work of think tanks is only considered if their advice is practical and agreeable to the government.
Lobbyists: people paid by organisations or corporations to try to influence MPs and ministers. The term derives from the fact that they often used to talk to politicians in hallways and corridors in the Houses of Parliament. Lobbyists may offer financial rewards to MPs in return for raising issues and asking questions in Parliament. An estimated £2bn is spent annually on lobbying in the UK. Concerns have been raised over the extent to which lobbyists can influence the democratic process.
Corporations: large businesses also try to influence the policy process, which has been a source of concern to pro-democracy campaigners.
Trade unions - the decline of pressure group power
Whilst many cause groups have utilised social media to enhance their influence, it has been argued that pressure group power is not increasing in the same way for all groups. Until the 1970s, the practice of corporatism was followed, whereby groups were closely integrated with the government. This was brought to an end by the Thatcher government, which had a strong suspicion of the trade unions, and so began to deny access to such groups. Combined with legislation making it more difficult for trade unions to effectively organise action (for example on the form of strikes), together with declining membership numbers, has meant that the influence of trade unions on the policy-making process has declined dramatically. Some have argued that even the large membership of other groups may not be a reliable indicator of involvement, due to the ‘chequebook group’ idea.