Nowadays almost every country claims to be democratic. Democracy is a type of political system where decisions are made in the interest of the citizens by decision makers, who are (or are not, if we are talking about direct democracy where decisions are made by people themselves) elected, accountable and can be got rid of peacefully. The view of majority is generally accepted but minorities are protected. Certain rights and freedoms are recognised and the Rule of Law exists. Nevertheless it sounds good in theory, in practice it is much more complicated and doubtable. In recent years a strong disillusionment with politicians who form governments occurred as they seem not to represent citizens of the country. If we look at the political spectrum we will find out, that the most influential political parties (in the UK Conservative and Labour) are more or less near the centre of the spectrum. So do they actually represent people? The obvious answer is no. Due to the loss of faith in politicians a shift occurred: from political parties to pressure groups. A pressure group (or an interest group) can be described as an organised group that does not put up candidates for elections, although some groups actually did, but they were mostly trying to attract attention to a particular issue, but seeks to influence government policy or legislation. Today there are thousands of pressure groups all over the world: from huge organisations like Greenpeace to tiny ones as for instance CLARA (Central Area Leamington Resident’s Association). They use a variety of methods to influence the government on hundreds of issues and provide mean of popular participation in national politics between the elections. But are they actually beneficial for democracy? Before answering this (seemingly) simple question we need to look in detail on pressure group activity and find its strong and weak points. Those issues are: an opportunity for people to participate in national and local politics, an intermediary between government and people, ‘safety valve’, the need of government in superior knowledge and improving legislation.
As it was said before, the membership in political parties has seriously fallen in recent years. Comparing with 1950‘s, when there were around 4 million people involved in party politics, the number of politicians today is around 400,000 and percentage of turnout in elections decreased from 85% to 60-65% throughout the same period of time. Thus, the number of people involved in pressure group activity has increased and the range of issues which they are concerned with is gigantic. Therefore it may be supposed that pressure groups increase participation in local and national politics. It is also worth saying, that the level of success of an interest group is not determined by the number of its members. A small local pressure group in Oxfordshire called Save Radley Lakes that was formed in 2005 had around 500 participants, but there were 30-40 activists that had really made a difference. The group campaigned against RRWE NPower which announced their intention of filling some lakes in Oxfordshire with fuel ash from a power station. After three years of campaigning NPower announced that they had no need for the Radley Lakes for future ash disposal, thus those less than 50 enthusiasts achieved success. The similar story was with the Fathers for Justice which emerged in 2001 and fought for equal rights for divorced parents. Although the group claims that it has around 25,000 of members, it appears to be fewer than 20 actual members who were involved in civil protest regularly conducting disobedience actions. Those two dozens of people also forced the government to change legislation.
However, is it good for democratic system if a small group of ordinary people can undermine the government? The politicians, who sit in the Parliament, have to be aware of numerous issues not only of national but also of those world-wide importance and look at them from different angles. They have to argue pros and cons for hours before making a decision, which will lead the country to prosperity in the end. On the contrary, pressure groups are usually concerned about one particular issue and are not taking in consideration all possible results of implementation of one or another law. So maybe the government has a serious reason to ignore campaigns of those groups such as Plane Stupid? May be the expansion of Heathrow airport will bring such big profits that the environment can be put on the altar of economic prosperity? And how can we, ordinary mortal people, claim that we know what will benefit the country and what will not?
Of course it is rather debatable and a lot of people will criticise me for that but I think that pressure groups distort democratic process through their activity. In my opinion, politicians can make more rational decisions and they are usually accountable for them. Ex altera parte, pressure groups are overestimating their issues and don’t look at the whole picture – as one famous song goes: “You saw the crescent, I saw the moon”.
The next reason why pressure groups are often seen to be beneficial for democracy is that they act as a kind of cement which binds the government and the citizens of the country. If we will look at the country like the UK we will see, that the government is formed of 120 members, but there are approximately 60 million people living in Britain. How can politicians listen to each citizen? There must be something that will act as intermediary between them. These intermediaries are pressure groups. Let’s look back at history in the industrial times. Who was concerned about environment and the amount of damage which was done to it by new-built factories and plants then? Almost no one. But a small group of hippies was. They have organised Greenpeace, and although nobody listened to them at first they had not given up. Nowadays the group has hundreds of thousands of members, environment is the most important issue on the political agenda and every government claims to be “green”. Did women have a right to vote in 1880‘s? No. But a group of feminists defended their rights and they finally became equal with men in 1929 at least in this sense. So undoubtedly those pressure groups had really changed our society for better.
However, there are also some disputes whether all pressure groups are heard and listened to. We have already looked at the concept of political spectrum and found out that today most influential political parties are somewhere in the middle of it – in the so-called liberal framework. There are no parties that represent radical ideas and therefore governments do not accept any of them. Who will listen to strong-right organisation such as English Defence League since there is no party sharing the same ideology? Radical groups are ignored by governments so they have two options: to lay down arms or try to shift the ideology. So do we really live in a democratic society if “crazy” (radical) ideas are simply ignored? Can people really change the country they live in or they are forced to follow government’s opinion?
The debates around this question can last forever. Though, in my opinion there is still a chance for each pressure group to make a difference. But its members have to be really enthusiastic and active to make the government listen to them. Only with energy and patience they can reach success.
The other function of pressure groups that benefits society may be called “tension release”. Today we live in an unstable society sections of which sometimes feel strongly about a particular issue. If we are to remain a peaceful society it is vital that there is a release for such feelings that does not necessarily result in violence. Pressure groups therefore act like a safety valve preventing revolutions and civil wars. When in 2003 Tony Blair announced his decision to invade Iraq a huge organisation “Stop the War Coalition” emerged. Over a million people went to the demonstration against the visit of George Bush to London expressing their disagreement with the government. The most recent example is an organisation (or rather a movement) called Occupy London which imitates famous Occupy Wall street in USA. There are approximately 200 people camping in front of St Paul’s Cathedral who are not happy with the Capitalist system as they find it to be unfair and exploitative. Perhaps, by organising public kitchens, study centres and library at their camping site they are trying to introduce an alternative way of running society using a calm, nonviolent method. So no one will argue that there must be something for people that can allow them to let the steam out [read: interest groups]. Governments which restricted pressure group activity had collapsed sooner or later. They are those such as Libya, Egypt where dictators had not allowed people to disagree with them. And perhaps everyone knows the results of such politics.
However, what if the violence still takes place? Who thinks that the student demonstration in the UK in 2010 was a good page in British history? Or how about Animal Liberal Movement which blocked the building of a Laboratory in Cambridge? Those “animal defenders” had sent bomb-letters to the scientists which were exploding in the hands of “cruel demons which are testing medicines on animals”. Is that a democratic method to express disagreement? There is a lot of other examples one of which I had already mentioned i.e. English Defence League. Members of that interest group claim that they see fanatic Islam being dangerous to British society, but in reality they are more likely to be the usual paranoid fascists.
Taking all these points into consideration I think that in this sense pressure groups are not such a good thing for today’s democracy. Perhaps, pressure group activity brings much more disorder to the society and actually harms it rather than benefits.
The last issue which we will look at seems to be beneficial too. Pressure groups improve the government with increased surveillance and provide expert knowledge in certain issues. Therefore interest groups can prevent governments from making irrational and unpopular decisions. Let’s look back at 1989 when the Prime Minister at that time, Margaret Thatcher, announced her decision to replace domestic property rates with a flat-rate tax per head (poll tax) to finance local government services. The Anti-Poll Tax Federation arose out of strong discontent with this innovation and after several years of demonstrations, protests and ‘tax-strikes’ the tax was finally abolished in 1991 and the Iron Lady was displaced. Perhaps, if she had listened to people she would have saved her position as the Prime Minister. But who knows. A lot of pressure groups, especially insiders, can also bring expert knowledge to the attention of the government on an important issue. A good example of such group is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents whose members, very experienced casualty doctors, and helped to draw up legislation requiring compulsory wearing of seat-belts.
However, some pressure groups may conversely slow down or block desirable changes. A lot of those groups are sponsored by huge industries such as car-manufacturing or oil extraction. They have been successful in feeding stories to the media which have raised doubts about the amount of damage that was done to the environment by those industries. The same happened with smoking and its harm to people’s organism. It took a long time for scientists from Oxford University to prove, that those ‘little soldiers of death’ (cigarettes) do actually kill. But before it happened the majority of people thought that the threat to cigarette-smoker’s health was exaggerated (moreover, some people even thought that smoking was beneficial!), thanks to the pressure groups, which were promoting tobacco.
So do pressure groups benefit the society or are they mostly thinking about the wealth of their own members? Well, it’s hard to give a clear answer because a lot depends on the nature of a particular pressure group and on its sponsors. Although some interest groups are rather selfish such as Law society or BMA, others like Greenpeace or Make poverty History seem to act in the interests of society.
So now, when we have almost reached the conclusion, we need to go back and answer the initial question. Are pressure groups good for democracy? Well, as for me, the answer is “No, they are not”. Although some of them are trying to change the world for better, there are many more of those that bring disorder into the existing system and make it even more complicated. And there are many-many of those that are chasing their own interests like Law Society or BMA mentioned previously or are obsessed with a radical idea like, for instance EDL. To my mind, there are alternatives to interest groups which allow people to express their opinion and be involved in politics between the elections, for example referendums, which allow people to express their opinion on current legislation in a 100% nonviolent way.