“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” —Gore Vidal
Political parties seek the power of government whereas pressure groups merely seek to influence the exercise of that power. Is this still true or are pressure groups more powerful than that?
Since Thatcher’s depature as Prime Minister British Politics has shifted strongly towards a system based on pressure groups rather than party loyalty. There is evidence that the country was moving in this direction anyway, for example the poll tax riots, but as a charismatic leader Thatcher united the party and the voters in two consecutive elections behind her.
With the demise of the charasmatic leader and the Conservative party in such disarray that Major recently described himself as the “head of a coalition government” the opportunity for pressure groups to increase their support as political party membership declines are only just beginning to open up.
Pressure groups are also known as cause groups and it is important to remember that publicly minded individuals are not the only ones stalking the halls of Westminster. Companies exist with the sole purpose of lobbying MPs. If you want to stop a bill getting passed that would harm you or your company, usually financialy, then you can hire one of these lobbying companies to work on your behalf.
Not all of these companies are above board as demonstrated by recent scandals involving “cash for questions” and two public enquiries. There are still individuals, such as the Sultan of Brunai, who have the power to buy off individual politicians. Allegations about the sultan himself are false and his integrity is not in question but it is clear from a series of resignations that whoever is doing the purchasing – there are MPs who can be bought.
While we appear to have sidestepped the question here it is important to demonstrate that individuals now hold more power in British politics. This is a direct result of the lack of a unified strategy at the top. While many analysts lamented the passing of cabinet government in the 1980s it must be said that it did mean that individuals had to toe the line. The main result of this was funds going directly into Conservative Party coffers instead of to individuals but it kept the image of the party a little cleaner.
Labour of course is as corruptible as the Conservatives. Until the rejection of everythiung the party stood for by the Blair contingent the Unions had the power to control individual MPs although this was done through patronage rather than cash. A similar situation existed with the Democrats in the US in the ’70s who owed their dues to Big Labor and when McGovern became the Democratic nominee for President in the campaign of ’72 at one point it looked as if they would let him lose to Nixon to regain control of the party in time for ’76.
After a second detour we now return to the main question. There are two kinds of pressure groups often defined as Insider and Outsider. However we are at an intersting point where some of the Outsider groups are on the verge of becoming insider groups. I will elaborate. Insider groups are those accepted by the establishment, they may even have been set up by the establishment such as the RSPCA. These insider groups will generally be called to advise select committees and to give their views on new policy affecting their area of interest. They are respected by the establishment and their views are thought to correspond to the general populace.
On the other side of the fence are the outsider groups who are not recognised by the establishment. They me be proscribed (illegal) groups such as the IRA or animal rights terrorists such as the ALF but there are also groups whos views are considered too eccentric or out of kilter with the views of Joe Public to matter – The Hunnt Sabatoeurs Association a few years ago for example. What is interesting is that groups like the IRA have apparently abandoned their form of lobbying – para-military activities, because it was not effective and are moving into the political process while other groups are moving away from the party system and directly into lobbying.
Public pressure groups need not be affiliated to an indivdual party, usually they are not. But they work with the parties to find sympathetic MPs who will argue their cause in Parliament. Only insider groups can be successful in doing this but a recent list of active pressure groups included over 400 groups in areas as diverse as Community Action, Animal Welfare, Farming, Ethnic Minorities, Unemployed, Drugs/Addiction, Education, Families, Aged, Wildlife, Environment, Health, Disability, Counselling, Housing, Sexuality, Religious, and Women’s groups.
What was the question? Where do pressure groups end and parties begin in Britain today? Well something like that. The Green party is a one cause party – it aims to get elected to put together policy on one issue, its policy on everything except the environment is a curious mixture of Luddite/Communist thinking coupled with liberal values and harsh taxes. The two main one issue parties in Britain are Plaid Cymru and the SNP who want independence of some sort for Wales and Scotland respectively. None of these three parties ever get taken particularly seriously although the big three do steal policy from the Greens occasionaly. If they do get their MPs elected the only time they can influence the government is when it comes to cutting deals to get government policy passed. Therefore those who do not a have their own party have turned to lobbying.
One MP in reality holds much less power than a nationaly organised band of voters fanatically loyal to their cause. If exports of live animals are going to stop it is because of the attention that pressure groups have brought to the issue and this is where there power lies. Because they are not political party organisations they can dedicate their entire resources to accomplashing one goal and in turn this gives them a wider base of support htan the political parties. This explains why party membership is down and pressure group membership is up. There are only six parties in mainland Britain that have any chance of getting an MP into parliament and the Monster Raving “Liberal” Loonies are only on that list because people are eventually going to get so sick of politics that if they are going vote it will be for the anti-politicians.
So we have established that pressure groups have immense power, backed by numbers of people who, at least on a local level, vote on issues rather than party politics – except when expressing disgust with the national Tory government. How do they use that power? They mount massive media campaigns, hog air time by harranging decommisioned oil rigs in the North Sea, get beaten up by fox-hunters, appear on current affairs programs with inside views. Representing a body of experience and knowledge and with national and often international, sans frontiers, support they can direct the political agenda and the public policy making machine often with more success than the incumbent political party.
In summary pressure groups do not often seek to influence the excersise of power in Westminster, they represent that power themselves and in so doing have often knocked big business into a close second and the unions onto the back burner. This of course was made possible by Thatcher’s precision bombing of the unions’ foundations and giving business almost everything they wanted. Business will return to power when it comes to the crunch on the issue of a single currency for Europe – they wan’t it and they don’t care how they get it even if they have to support Labour. Until then pressure groups are the main-stay of British national politics and no media report on any political issue would be complete without the opinion of an analyst from the relevant group.