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Power Dynamics among UK Interest Groups: Pluralism and its Implications

Interest groups in the UK play a crucial role in influencing public policy. These organizations are separate from the government but seek to establish close relationships with the executive to advocate for their interests and concerns. While pluralism, an ideology that accepts the diversity of interests and ideas, allows for a variety of interest groups to participate in the policy-making process, preventing the dominance of a singular national interest, within this pluralistic system, some interest groups emerge as more powerful than others. This article explores the factors contributing to this power disparity, focusing on the contemporary British government's majoritarian, Westminster-style politics and the competitive nature of interest group dynamics.


Figure 1. Houses of parliament (Dickson, 2021)

Pluralism and Interest Groups' Influence

Some interest groups are more powerful than others within the UK due to a hierarchy effect that comes with pluralism. Firstly, interest groups are organizations separate from the government but advocate a close relationship with the executive to influence public policy. These groups usually either encourage or protest against certain policies to avoid the "Tyranny of the majority" (Tocqueville, 1838). Interest groups provide a superior form of participation as the issues raised may incentivize "intense minorities to prevail over majorities whom the issue matters little." (Tocqueville, 1838) There are many reasons why some interest groups are more powerful than others, but it arguably depends on the system of government in place. The contemporary British government displays a majoritarian, Westminster-style of politics, complemented by a pluralistic ideology between interest groups. Usually, interest groups show cognitive conflict, the augmentation principle, and the snowball effect to demonstrate more dominance than others due to majority support.


Popularity and Authority of Interest Groups

Certain groups are more prominent and successful than others due to the popularity and authority they hold within the country, which enhances their ability to lobby with government officials. This can be demonstrated by a group's capacity to organize a majority of its potential members. For instance, the National Union of Mineworkers effectively spoke for nearly 100% of miners for years, granting them the power to impose significant sanctions on the UK's coal industry, as seen in the 1984 strikes. This tactic of failure to function emphasizes the interest group's authority and negotiation leverage, establishing them as more powerful than others. From a psychological perspective, the augmentation principle likely comes into play when interest groups demonstrate their willingness to suffer for their cause, such as not getting paid. This can trigger the attention of governmental representatives, where pressure groups aim to influence the political system at the most accessible point. For example, they might target the public or try to sway parts of the political spectrum that seem sympathetic to their views, such as trade unions and the Labour Party. A contemporary example of a union protest is the 2010 student riots, where students and unions, including Oxford University's Student Union, protested throughout the UK against the conservative coalition's plans to cut funding for further education and increase tuition fees. The ensuing snowball effect encouraged the participation of 30,000 and 50,000 protesters, leading the executive to perceive them seriously as lobbyists due to their prominent and disruptive protests.

Figure 2. British Coal Miners strike of 1984 (n.d, 2015)

Civil Society and Political Participation

Furthermore, Civil societies could be more powerful as this type of interest group aims to limit and control the power of the state while promoting political participation among the UK population. Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke assert that citizens have the right to overthrow a corrupt or failing government, and robust civil societies can facilitate the transition from a totalitarian state to a democratic one. A study conducted by the Institution of Education in the UK that examined three birth cohorts: 1946, 1958, and 1970, found that participation rates were 60% in 1946 but dramatically declined to 15% in 1958, and further decreased to 8% in 1970 (Bynner, 2005). This decline in political participation could be attributed to a post-war fear of a totalitarian dictatorship in 1946, stemming from the firsthand experience of the devastating damages caused by the Nazi party. Additionally, an increase in passive memberships and a trend towards what sociologist Robert Putnam (1995) calls "bowling alone" contributed to the decrease in participation rates over time. Putnam observed a decline in involvement with voluntary bodies in the USA despite rising levels of education, which is typically associated with increased political participation. This demonstrates that even though overall political participation may be decreasing, interest groups within the UK still exist and remain active in their protests against issues such as creative destruction, higher fees, and regressive forms of gratification, as exemplified by promotion groups like the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which protest against practices like animal slaughter for clothing and food.


Pluralism and Government Consultation

Commonly observed within interest groups in the UK is the ideology of pluralism, which accepts the fragmentation of interests and ideas. According to Wilson (1990), there is no "common, public, or national interest," but rather different interpretations and views on what constitutes desirable public policy. Pluralism aims to deflect the idea of an electoral dictatorship, recognizing that diverse opinions and perspectives are integral to a healthy democratic society. Due to the lack of a written constitution, the UK government adopts a consultation list before implementing a new policy (Richardson, 1993). This list includes relevant interest groups surrounding the policy in question, and their elected representatives become a "necessary tool of social reform, a necessary aid to the government, and evidence of healthy public concern" (Hollis, 1974, p85). This approach ideally opposes that of a dogmatic totalitarian society by promoting competitive diversity and incorporating various opinions into the policy-making process.

Figure 3. Police clashed with protesters marching to London's Parliament Square as lawmakers debated a controversial plan to triple university tuition fees in England (Karel Prinsloo, 2010)

However, under a UK majoritarian, two-party style government, pluralism may lead to a concentration of power among a select few insider interest groups. These monopolized insider groups become competitively dominant due to their connections, wealth, and organization with local councils and government bodies. Wyn Grant (1985) identifies the presence of insider and outsider groups, arguably conveying the popularity of certain interest groups. Insider groups, which share political policies and interests with the party in power, may receive favouritism, exemplified by the tax alliance's reputation as the wing of the conservative party; an example is the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). The CBI established their business by providing advice from their analyse of international government policies and regulations; the Uk government included. On the other hand, outsider groups may lack specialist knowledge on certain policies and oppose the interests of the executive, as seen in the case of the campaign for nuclear disarmament.


In summary, while pluralism encourages diverse viewpoints and competitive dialogue, its effectiveness may be hindered by the concentration of power within a small number of monopolized insider interest groups. Achieving a balance between incorporating various perspectives and preventing undue influence from concentrated interests is essential for maintaining a healthy democratic process in the UK. Policymakers must remain vigilant in upholding the principles of pluralism, ensuring that decision-making processes reflect the interests and welfare of the broader public.



Figure 4. Theresa May at the CBI’s conference (The CBI ,n.d)

Challenges of Pluralistic Interest Groups

Arguably, one of the problems with pluralistic interest groups in a majoritarian democracy is that they have the potential to undermine the sovereignty of the government through extreme acts of violence and cognitive conflict aimed at gaining attention and effecting change. The suffragettes serve as a historical example of interest groups resorting to terror tactics to emphasize their cause, such as bombing churches and causing £3 million in damages (Bearman, 2005). In an abstract sense, such actions undermine the jurisdiction of democratic power where real legitimacy and authority should reside. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the suffragettes' ideology was not inherently malicious but rather courageous in pursuing women's suffrage. Nonetheless, the problem arises from the methods used to gain influence and power over other interest groups, as resorting to violence can have adverse consequences on the democratic process. Similarly, contemporary interest groups, like The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), employ tactics of violence and cognitive conflict to protest against the use of animals in experiments. While their cause may be driven by genuine concerns, resorting to these aggressive strategies challenges the principles of peaceful democratic engagement. This form of action aligns with Lijphart's (2012) characterization of the typical interest group system as a "competitive and uncoordinated pluralism of independent groups," suggesting that such an approach lacks effectiveness when compared to corporatism, a more coordinated and centralized form of interest representation.


For pluralism to work effectively, it needs to be accompanied by a decentralized state of government that is open to new influences and ideas from different groups (Lijphard, 2012). Embracing the diversity of perspectives and interests, and incorporating them into the policy-making process, can lead to a government that better represents the people it serves. However, when pluralism is not managed properly, it can create a fragmented political landscape where various interest groups vie for attention and influence, potentially undermining the effectiveness and stability of the government. Pluralistic interest groups in a majoritarian democracy can present challenges when extreme tactics of violence and cognitive conflict are employed to gain attention and effect change. While the underlying ideologies may be rooted in legitimate concerns, the methods used to pursue their objectives can undermine the democratic principles of peaceful engagement and open dialogue. To harness the positive aspects of pluralism, it is essential to strike a balance between diverse representation and maintaining the sovereignty and stability of the government. This necessitates a decentralized state of government that welcomes various influences and ideas, ultimately fostering a government of the people.


Figure 5. Satirical cartoon of the ALF by a right wing interest group (n.d)

Connections between Interest Groups and the Executive: Bias and the Challenge of Pluralism

The connections between interest groups and the executive in a pluralistic system can be influenced by factors such as wealth and information, potentially leading to an inequality of influence among various interest groups. Despite the belief in equal representation within pluralism, Dahl (1961) highlights that "Many different kinds of resources for influencing officials are available to different citizens," resulting in a misdirection of resources and an unequal distribution of knowledge among interest groups. This disparity in knowledge, wealth, social status, and access to officials may reflect in a contemporary UK setting, leading to some interest groups having a higher level of influence and connections due to their backgrounds and resources. As a consequence, this can give rise to scandals regarding government influences, as exemplified by the 2006-2007 cash for honours scandal, in which the House of Lords Appointments Commission rejected certain nominees on the grounds that they had made large financial contributions to the cash-strapped Labour Party, raising suspicions of quid pro quo arrangements for honours.


Ultimately, within the UK's pluralistic system, some interest groups emerge as more powerful than others by strategically lobbying and competing to monopolize the concentration ratio of pressure groups. However, an alternative perspective posits that corporatism might offer a more effective approach than pluralism. Corporatism involves forming coalitions of large interest groups in collaboration with the government. In this system, the government exchanges influence and cooperation with these groups, fostering a more holistic approach to governance. While this may reduce the competitive aspect of pluralism, it raises concerns about centralizing power and authority, potentially marginalizing other interest groups and leading to a less democratic representation and participation of the public in the decision-making process (Marsh & Rhodes, 1992).


Figure 6. "Whatever the outcome of the police investigation, Blair's legacy will be deeply tainted - and the party may yet implode, writes Martin Jacques." (Bell, 2008)

Therefore, the connections between interest groups and the executive in a pluralistic system can be influenced by factors such as wealth and information, leading to an unequal distribution of influence among interest groups. This disparity can result in some groups having more significant sway over public policy decisions, potentially giving rise to controversies and scandals regarding government influences. While pluralism allows various interest groups to participate in the policymaking process, it may also lead to intense competition and a concentration of power among a few dominant groups. The debate over corporatism as an alternative model raises concerns about the centralization of power and its potential impact on democratic representation. Striking a balance between diverse representation and effective governance remains a significant challenge for interest group dynamics in the UK..


Conclusion

In conclusion, interest groups play a vital role in the UK's policy-making process, advocating for diverse interests and ideas. Pluralism allows for a wide array of interest groups to participate, preventing the dominance of a singular national interest. However, within this system, some interest groups become more influential due to various factors like popularity, organization, and tactics employed. Challenges arise when extreme measures like violence are used, potentially undermining democratic principles. Managing pluralism effectively is crucial to ensuring a fair and inclusive representation of the public's interests. Finding the right balance between diverse representation and effective governance remains a key concern for interest group dynamics in the UK.




Bibliographic References

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  2. Bearman, C. J. (2005). An Examination of Suffragette Violence. The English Historical Review, 120(486), 365–397. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3490924

  3. Bynner, J. (2005). Rethinking the Youth Phase of the Life-course: The Case for Emerging Adulthood? Journal of Youth Studies, 8(4), 367–384. https://doi.org/10.1080/13676260500431628

  4. Dahl, R. (1961). Who Governs? Yale University Press.

  5. Hollis, P. (1974). Pressure from without in Early Victorian England (1st ed.). Edward Arnold.

  6. Lijphart, A. (2012). Patterns of Democracy. Yale University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt32bg23

  7. Marsh, D., & Rhodes, R. A. W. (1992). Implementing Thatcherite policies. Political Studies, 40(2), 185-199.

  8. McKay, D. (1987). The Political Economy of Corporatism. Edited by Wyn Grant (New York: St. Mary's Press, 1985. xii, 274p. $29.95). - Varieties of Corporatism: Theory and Practice. By Peter J. Williamson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. x, 244p. $39.50). American Political Science Review,81(1), 296-298. doi:10.2307/1960821

  9. Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America's Declining Social Capital. Journal of Democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

  10. Richardson, J. J. (2000). Government, Interest Groups and Policy Change. Sage Journal, 48(5).

  11. Tocqueville, A. (1838). Democracy in America. G. Dearborn & Co.

  12. Wilson, G. K. (1990). Interest groups. Basil Blackwell.




Visual Sources

Figure 1: Politico EU. (n.d.). UK Lobbying: Big Tech and Cash for MPs. Retrieved from https://www.politico.eu/article/uk-lobbying-big-tech-cash-mp-interest-groups/

Figure 2: North Carolina Theatre. (n.d.). British Coal Miners' Strike 1984. Retrieved from https://nctheatre.com/blog/british-coal-miners-strike-1984

Figure 3: Business Insider. (2010, December). Check Out Photos of the Insane Student Riots Happening in London. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/check-out-photos-of-the-insane-student-riots-happening-in-london-2010-12#-10

Figure 4: Democratic Audit. (2018, August 24). Audit2018: How Democratic Is the Interest Group Process in the UK? Retrieved from https://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/08/24/audit2018-how-democratic-is-the-interest-group-process-in-the-uk/

Figure 5: Truth About Fur. (n.d.). Mink Liberation: 5 Facts ALF Doesn't Want You to Know. Retrieved from https://www.truthaboutfur.com/mink-liberation-5-facts-alf-doesnt-want-know/

Figure 6: The Guardian. (n.d.). Steve Bell Cartoons. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cartoons/stevebell/0,,2006846,00.html








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