Role of Interest Groups
What decides the success of Interest Groups?
A number of factors can help an interest group to be successful in what it is trying to achieve, though no single factor guarantees success:-
A close relationship with, or the support of, the party which is in control of Government will generally help. A group may even provide funding for a political party. For example, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, with many of their MPs representing rural constituencies, were sympathetic to farmers who wanted a cull of badgers because of their concern that badgers carried the cattle disease tuberculosis, and so the Coalition Government carried out culls in limited areas. Equally, the Labour Government, elected in 1997, was ready to listen to the concern of the gay community and so repealed legislation that prevented the discussion of homosexuality in schools and also introduced civil partnerships for gay people. The political views of the Minister in charge of the policy area with which the group is concerned are particularly important.
Public sympathy helps the group to put pressure on the Government. The group or the media can commission opinion polls to find out the public view and the group can encourage people to write to their MP or to the newspapers. An attempt, in 2010, by the Government to sell off publicly owned forests was abandoned after public support for a campaign by the Ramblers and conservation groups. Backbench MPs, briefed by the interest groups, can keep up the pressure by asking questions in Parliament about the issue. Parliament runs an online petition which groups can use and if it reaches 100,000 signatures, MPs will debate the issue.
A Government policy that affects large numbers of people will be easier for groups to resist. Anti-poverty groups pointed out the problems of the Government’s proposal, in2015, to reduce tax credits for families with a member in work. When Government MPs began to find out how many of their constituents were affected their pressure forced the Chancellor of the Exchequer to change the policy. An organisation such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has around a million members, will find it easier to organise large numbers of people to contact MPs and the Government and so have an impact.
Groups may vary according to how good they are at getting media attention. If they are able to employ a publicity officer, then he or she will be able to keep in regular contact with journalists and media outlets and so get favourable stories. Imaginative campaigns and the resources to pay for advertisements will help get publicity. A group that is able to attract support from celebrities will get more media coverage. The well-known actress, Joanna Lumley, was able to get publicity to the campaign to allow Nepalese soldiers, the Gurkhas, who had fought in the British Army, the right to retire in Britain.
Some interest groups have regular contact with ministers and civil servants. These groups, called insider groups by civil servants, are consulted at an early stage about Government proposals and are able to have a continuous influence on policy. Government may not always accept the views of these groups but is always ready to look for compromises with them. Groups such as the Police Federation, representing police officers, or the British Medical Association, representing doctors, have had this status, although in recent years Governments, often seeking to reduce public expenditure or increase efficiency in the public sector, have been in conflict with them.
Groups with a large membership or those representing economic interests are able to raise a significant amount of money. This pays for full-time staff who can run media campaigns, sometimes with expensive advertising, mobilise members, use social media and provide the research that can be used to persuade policy-makers. They can also pay for lobbying firms who are experts at shifting the debate on to the group’s strong points and neutralising the opposition. For example, Westbourne Communications were brought in when there was adverse publicity to the high speed rail project, HS2, from people along the proposed route and was able to shift the debate to the economic benefits of the project for Northern England.
Although direct action is often a result of a group having little influence and feeling excluded from decision making, it can sometimes be successful. The destruction of trials of genetically modified crops by anti GM protestors and the blockading of power stations by lorry drivers protesting at the price of diesel were successful. However, the suffragette movement campaigning for the vote for women before 1914 had a long campaign of direct action and, although their protests kept the issue alive, it was the changed political climate after the First World War and the involvement of women in war work that led to a change of Government policy.