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Role of Interest Groups

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What is the difference between Interest Groups and Political Parties?

Interest groups look to address the concerns of their members, promote changes that benefit them and protect them against changes that might adversely affect them.  They will look to influence those with political power in order to achieve this.   At election time they will canvass the views of parliamentary candidates from each party on issues that they are concerned with and make sure that their members are aware of candidates’ views.

Political parties aim to fight elections at local and national levels in order to gain political power.  In order to do this they publish a manifesto of things that they hope to achieve, aim to get publicity in the media about their proposals and to attack those of their opponents, and develop an electoral machine to contact voters and persuade supporters to vote.

Occasionally interest groups have stood candidates in elections to give publicity to issues with which they are concerned, for example, anti-abortion groups.  They normally attract few votes but a group campaigning against the closure of a hospital in Wyre Valley managed to get their candidate elected as the MP in the general election of 2001 and also won seats on the local council. In general though, interest groups are reluctant even to favour one party against another, though some trade unions have a strong link with the Labour Party.

Interest groups operate by meeting with national and local politicians and with civil servants and local officials about their concerns but will also give publicity to problems that their members have and ways that government can help them. This involves running campaigns through the media or by getting members to lobby MPs and ministers.

Political parties operate by campaigning locally through talking to people on the doorstep, leafletting or running street stalls to promote their policies.  The national party will brief its MPs so that they can be effective in Parliament and promote its ideas and attack opposition parties through the media.

Interest groups normally have members with particular and limited concerns.  Those which political scientists call sectional groups represent particular economic interests, such as farmers or motor manufacturers, and restrict their membership to people in those categories.  Other groups, called cause groups, accept membership from those who support their particular aims such as ASH which campaigns against tobacco smoking or Shelter which campaigns on the problem of homelessness and related housing issues or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Members for these groups pay a subscription and have voting rights within the organisation  Local groups, campaigning for improvements in their area or on proposals such the threatened closure of a school or a hospital, may have a formal membership or may just keep an email list of supporters.

There are two types of groups which have much broader aims. 

  • Trade union membership is  restricted to people who work in particular types of occupations, such as UNISON for public sector workers, but, as well as dealing with the immediate issues that affect their members, may campaign on broad issues such as the national economy or European Union membership.  This is particularly true of those trade unions that are affiliated to the Labour Party.
  • New campaigning groups, of which 38 Degrees, is the best example, have taken up a range of issues from a radical point of view.  38 Degrees has started online petitions on the NHS, freedom of information and the proposed trade agreement between the US and the EU, for example.  They do not have a membership, as such, but email contacts and appeal for donations to pay for their activities.

Political parties will accept membership from anyone who supports their aims, as long as they are not members of another party, and so members share a broad ideology or view of the world rather than the same view on a particular issue.  They become involved in the whole range of issues that affect society, including Britain’s relationship with other countries.  Because both membership and relevant issues are so broadly based there may be sharp differences of view within parties such as within the Labour Party about nuclear arms and within the Conservative Party about membership of the European Union.

Interest groups are generally run from a central organisation and, though there may be local branches, these do not necessarily cover the whole country but are set up where there are active supporters.  Local branches generally see their role as promoting the policies and campaigns of the central organisation.  There will normally be an annual meeting to consider changes to the organisation and elect the national officers but this is generally a low key affair unless there is an internal dispute.

Political parties have an organisation in all areas based on parliamentary constituencies. These constituency parties have a degree of independence, debate issues and choose parliamentary and local government candidates and run locally based as well as national campaigns.  There is an annual party conference which is a major event with discussion of issues and policies.  There is also a Parliamentary Party, if the party has a group of MPs, with a separate organisation.