What are Interest Groups' place in UK society?
Arguments for Interest Groups
Interest groups increase participation by people in the democratic system. At a time when political party membership and turnout in elections have declined, interest group membership and activity provide an alternative means of political involvement. It could be argued that interest group participation is more in tune with modern society in which individual interests are more important than the loyalty to social groups that provided support to political parties. People are better educated and able to research issues on the internet and so contribute to interest group activity.
Interest groups allow a wide range of views to be heard. In doing this they help to defuse the frustration that groups of the population may feel if their voice is not listened to and so prevent disillusion with the democratic system. Although the political parties produce detailed manifestos to cover a wide range of policies, media attention focusses, during a general election, on personalities and a few key issues and these decide the election to the exclusion of other interests. Interest groups, by lobbying Government and MPs and by creating publicity about their concerns, allow a much wider range of issues to be considered between elections. Backbench MPs often take an interest in the concerns of a particular group.
Interest groups help a wider range of people to have an influence on the policy process and on legislation. Although insider groups are likely to have more influence because of their close links to Government, all groups through lobbying and publicity, are able to have some effect. The British Government now regularly carries out a consultation on proposed changes of policy and legislation and EU institutions are particularly open to interest group representations.
Interest groups, through their knowledge of issues and the research that they carry out, increase the information that is available to the public. Government may even use interest groups in areas such as health to carry out policies with government funding. They are also able to examine and criticise Government policy and proposed legislation so that it is open to more scrutiny. At election time, groups contact parliamentary candidates to seek their views on issues and publicise the answers to their members so that they can take this into account when they vote.
Arguments critical about Interest Groups
It can be argued that interest groups represent the politics of self-interest because they are only concerned about their members or their particular cause, in contrast to Governments and political parties that have to consider the overall or national interest. If an interest group is able to use pressure to get what it wants then this may well have an adverse effect on other people.
If politics becomes dominated by interest groups then this may well undermine representative democracy. Political parties bring together and reconcile different interests through their policy proposals. MPs as elected representatives and the Government as a whole, which has been chosen by the electorate, have to consider all the different potential results, including the long-term effects, of a policy. Otherwise politics just becomes polarized by a war of interests one against another, often making superficial and populist appeals to the public to gain support
Pluralist theory argues that everyone has an equal ability to put pressure on politicians but some groups, particularly business groups, are wealthier than others and so have more resources to influence what happens. Other groups may have few resources or be neglected entirely. Wealthier groups often have the contacts within Government that make them more influential. Elite theory has criticised pluralist views and argued that, in practice, small powerful elites have disproportionate influence.
It has been questioned as to how democratic and accountable many groups are. Although there may be a membership that have paid a subscription and have the right to elect the committee and officers that run the group, in practice, participation by members may be limited and so a virtually self-appointed set of people run the group and decide its policies. Although there may be a branch structure, key meetings may take place in London and so be difficult for many members to attend. Larger groups are often staff-heavy and base most of their activity on media contact and seeking celebrity endorsement with little member involvement.
Political participation through interest groups may be superficial. People may really be supporters rather than members and only have contact with the organisation via the internet and through donations. Their support may be as much a statement of what they feel their identity to be as a deep commitment to work for the cause.
Interest group tactics that include direct action may disrupt the lives of other people and even threaten democracy. For example, the decision of lorry drivers to blockade power stations, because of a dispute over the tax on diesel , threatened to bring the national economy to a standstill.