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To what extent are pressure groups healthy for democracy in the UK?

 

Although turn-out at UK elections has been falling in recent years, this does not necessarily mean that people are less engaged in politics.  In fact, it could be argued that through pressure groups people are more involved in politics than ever; for many people, this in itself makes them good for democracy. 

Unlike political parties, pressure groups tend to represent single issues that they feel are either neglected or have got lost in the thinly-spread agendas of the main political parties.  Pressure groups, broadly categorized as either ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ depending on their relationship with government, seek to influence the government of the day through a wide variety of methods and strategies.  However, there has been much debate over just how good they are for democracy.

Pressure groups can be viewed from the point of view that they allow a minority point of view to come across where it may not otherwise have been heard.  On the other hand, it could be said that this undermines democracy by allowing one small viewpoint to bully decision-makers into giving in to what they want.

Those who support pressure groups could argue that not all pressure groups use ‘bullying’ tactics.  In fact, ‘pressure group’ often defines an ‘interest’ groups rather than a ‘cause’ group – i.e., a group such as a trade union which, although representing a minority, few could argue the necessity of in monitoring pay and conditions within various professions.

This could be argued with the point that many pressure groups do resort to direct action, which is illegal.  Perhaps the most recently famous example of this is the various actions of the group ‘Fathers 4 Justice’ (now disbanded), which have included things which breach national security barriers by getting inside the House of Commons and the walls of Buckingham Palace.  Supporters would argue that these actions were fundamentally harmless and helped the group, championing the rights of divorced fathers to see their children, to be given more publicity.  Again, this could be countered with the argument that these actions were nevertheless illegal and therefore a threat to our democratic law-making process.

It should be noted the difference between ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ pressure groups.  Those which have most influence tend to be insider groups, as they are perceived as more structured with a high degree of expertise in their field.  A key example is the British Medical Association (BMA).  However, these groups are subject to greater restrictions due to their close involvement with government decision-making.  It could be said that such groups are no threat to democracy as they are more of a source of expertise which the government may use to form a more informed decision on a certain subject.  Furthermore, it is these groups which have more of a chance of being listened to.

However, these groups are also more likely to be politically similar to the party in power, and therefore less likely to want to make changes in the first place.  Outsider groups, who resort often to direct action, or more commonly simple methods such as letter writing campaigns, are those who are more likely to campaign for radical change.

All pressure groups in recent years have become more professional and developed a measure of lobbying power that some people would argue is disproportionate to the size of their minority support.  This, in the eyes of some, is not good for democracy as it puts too much power in the hands of small, well educated and highly organised and skilled groups.  Others would point out that these groups educate and mobilize the public on matters of serious concern, and that anything that stimulates political interest and involvement in an age of falling electoral turnout and alleged voter apathy must be good for democracy.

In conclusion, pressure groups could be seen to undermine democracy where minority groups attempt to bully the government through highly developed lobbying techniques or even through orchestrating direct action.  However, most pressure groups, and certainly the larger ones, have learned to use the levers of democracy and their strength is very often based on widespread public support, a fact of which governments are keenly aware.

 

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