In most of the democratic nation-states it is usually the form of representative democracy, which the society is governed by. A representative democracy can be defined as ” a limited and direct form of democracy based on the selection (usually by election) of those who will rule on behalf of the people.” (Heywood A 2002: 430) In a democratic state, regardless whether it is in representative or direct forms, the opinions of majority take considerable amount of role in the decision-making process. A pressure groups works as a weapon in terms of encourage the involvement of the public to exercise their political duty and participate in political process.
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Jones B defines a pressure group as ‘a body possessing both formal structure and common interests which seeks to influence government at the national, local and international level without normally seeking election to representative bodies.’ (2010:648) However, there has been a remarkable increase in debates that the pressure groups are often to be considered as a threat to representative democratic system. Pressure groups are organizations, which allow the public to freely express their views on government policies and decisions. They have therefore been seen to promote democracy within our political system since they allow all people to influence the way those in power govern them. At the same time though critics of pressure groups argue that they cause too much disturbance to the political system and are not effective. Thus this essay is going to examine to what extent can pressure groups be considered a threat to representative democracy and in order to make an adequate examination on this, the types of pressure groups and the methods of how they approach the goals that they aimed for will be revised and possible effects of the method will be outlined.
Pressure groups differ from political parties in various ways. Pressure groups attempt to influence parties but do not seek power for themselves whereas political parties try to gain power through electoral success. Pressure groups are generally only formed for one reason (such as Liberty) whereas parties are multi-issued to attract as many voters as possible. Parties also tend to be existence for longer time (for example the Conservatives have been in existence for many generation) whereas pressure groups, often single issued, usually last for a much shorter period of time. A pressure group is often divided into two different categories according to its characteristic and methods they interpret; insider groups and outsider pressure groups. Laycock S distinguishes the differences between insider and outsider pressure groups. She describes insider groups as those who are “trusted by government and are seen as resources with accesses to govt ministers thus are often involved in decision-making processes” whereas the outsider groups “range from less established lobbying groups to direct action and tend to draw strength from large and/or committed membership” (Laycock Eighth Lecture on Political participations, Pressure groups and Anti-party politics 2010) In addition, Heywood A describes insider groups as those who “enjoy regular privileged and usually institutionalized access to government through routine consultation or representation on government bodies.” whereas “outsider groups, on the other hand, are either not consulted by the government or consulted irregularly and not usually by the senior level.” (2002:273) In other words, it can be said that insider groups tend to choose more legal and legitimate methods such as lobbying to influence the decision making process meanwhile the outsider groups comparatively attempt to seek their goals by often violent and direct methods such as march on streets.
Regardless the methods and type of the pressure groups, they eventually aim to make governments aware of public views not shared in political circles. They also often create new ideas, and conceive programmes of reform, which professional politicians might not have had the chance to develop. However, one of the most vital functions of a pressure group is the expert knowledge that these groups can bring to the government’s attention. Jones B and Norton P supports this point as they state,
“In Parliament, groups may influence the final form of legislation.” (2010:184) An example of this is the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which promoted to draw up the legislation required to make wearing seatbelts obligatory duty. Membership was mainly formed of experienced casualty doctors. In addition to the point, some pressure groups decide to avoid biased information to MPs, with a view to influencing a change in legislation that could do good to members of that pressure group. This is where the critique of the pressure groups in terms of preventing representative democracy arises. Attempts to influence in order to change certain legislation demonstrates that in such case, some pressure groups are harmful to a democratic society, because the political aims of a small percentage of the population have been influential in legislative changes, or preventing changes in legislation, which could potentially affect many other people, who may not share the similar political aims. Furthermore this can also lead to disproportionate ‘representation’ of a group in the policy making process. In relation to this point Jones B and Norton P mentioned, “The freedom to organize and influence is exploited by the rich and powerful groups in society.” (2010:197) This is apparent if pressure groups promoting minority rights are overly successful, or if governments tend to favor certain insider groups. An example of this is the government’s unwillingness to anger the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) over the slaughter of cattle during the BSE crisis. (Internet source, accessed on 9th December 2010) As an outcome, public health was compromised.
Likewise, certain pressure groups acquire the important role of providing expertise and advise such as B.M.A to the government in particular fields. Insider groups help the government by supplying them with relevant information concerning key issues. In order to do this they carry out detailed research and therefore the government trusts their results. This can be regarded as improvement of democracy since it is an example of the government listening to various views and taking many factors into account when decision making and the case of the Association of Chief Police Offices (ACPO) is an example of an insider pressure group which the government discussed when drawing up the terrorism bill post 7/7. However, points against the notion of pressure groups promoting democracy is raised at this point as since such pressure groups can gain too much influence within the government, thus limiting potential for opposing views of less significant outsider groups, which opposes the idea of ‘people rule’.
Such notion leads to an acknowledgement of another function of pressure groups which, is that they persuade public to participate and enable people to campaign on behalf of the less privileged. This type of campaigning is demonstrated by sectional cause groups who battle for certain groups within our society with less likeliness to have their views heard to be taken seriously. This could possibly be regarded as promoting democracy since it allows the needs of ‘all’ of society to be taken into account while decision making, since it offers an opportunity for all people’s view to be aired. Groups such a Shelter and Mind, campaign for the homeless and the mentally disabled, two sections of society who are not particularly affluent and able to affect the decision made by the government. These pressure groups raise the public profile on such issues, which are ignored in general. On the other hand Animal Rights activists may be seen as groups protecting the interests of a section of society, which is not able to protect itself. However their methods often tend to be both aggressive and disruptive and the militant action used by groups such as the Animal Liberation Front rise a critique of pressure groups being undemocratic. This point is further investigated as Jones B and Norton P argue, “Some groups either are so passionate or have become so impatient with the slow moving wheels of government that they have deliberately use high profile and illegal tactics.” (2010:187) Although raising public awareness and participation does enhance and promote democracy, if the methods used in the process are too violent or militant which are mostly anti-social it is not difficult to see how the pressure groups are often perceived as a threat to a representative democracy.
Moreover, although pressure groups are said to be playing a considerable amount of role enhancing a democratic society in many ways, there are still other features and examples of pressure groups proving detrimental towards forms of democratic government. Representative democracy is the state of government where the nation is governed by ‘the people’ or elite which is elected frequently by the public to govern the people. It is also the equality of every person in society, which extends certain rights, such as the right to be heard politically. This additionally means that on occasions, the ‘unelected’ leaders of a pressure group may lobby for certain legislative changes, under the pretence that all of its members are of the same political inclination, whilst some members of the pressure group may not believe in that particular policy. Jones B and Norton P support this point as they argue, “Pressure groups are often not representative of their members and in many cases do not have democratic appointment procedures for senior staff.” (2010:197) It can further be mentioned that a worst-case scenario of this could be a monopolistic, dictatorial type of leader promoting a cause in the name of the entire pressure group. The representative bodies such as MPs are at least given legitimate authority to rule and reflect the viewed of the public whereas it is common for pressure groups rather to select their leaders than elected by the members or the public. In addition, it can be noted the idea of a pluralist society revolve around the idea that governments will get information from well-presented, logical arguments. However, some pressure groups, due to wealth or its size, enthusiastic memberships, media support, or insider condition, are much more successful than smaller groups. This results in large pressure groups winning a dominant position in society, and political circles, despite possible sectional and selfish results. An example of this was when pressure groups postponed the construction of the M42 for 14 years, even though public need for more transport links. This is an example of pressure group allowing a minority to disadvantage the whole nation. Pressure groups can also cause social discord, such as the Lord’s Day Observance Society clashing with the supermarket chains, over the right to open shops on Sundays. As a result, although it is clear that pressure groups play a essential role in an open, free democracy, because pressure groups promote ‘people power’ such characteristics of pressure group participation do inhibit ‘true’ democracy.
Overall, it can be concluded that although pressure groups and their features do play a coherent role to promote and enhance democracy as they raise the public awareness and provide direct opportunities to participate, pressure groups on the other hand can allow too much influence over the government from unelected extremist minority groups, which in turn could lead to unpopular consequences. The features that many groups and its leaders are elitist, where power and decision-making process are concentrated in the hands of ‘unelected’ few and a recent trend in pressure group activity has been the increase in illegal direct action, such as property damage, often connected with the new ‘social movements’ can definitely work as a threat to representative democracy. In addition, the possibility that some group might have too much influence over government actions due to the social or educational backgrounds of the members while others are not considered as much and also the potential notion that their views are not always right are also the factors that diminish the characteristics of a democracy in modern society.