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Pluralist democracy works with numerous organised groups who all have some political power in the decision-making setting. It assumes that it’s ‘neutral’ government who listens to, and acts on the outcomes of these competing interests. Thus the large number and operation of pressure groups is considered to be a vital element in the promotion of pluralist democracy. There are considerations that pressure groups strengthen pluralist democracy. An argument for this encompasses that the existence of varied numerous pressure groups support the theory of pluralism.
The modern political culture in the UK can be referred to as being one of pluralism in nature. This means that we expect a wide range of groups, interests, beliefs and ideologies to flourish together, all competing for attention and influence. The UK is a fundamentally free society, tolerant of different cultures, ideas and demands. As long as a group does not break the law, threaten the security of the state or incite others to commit crime or adopt racist ideas, it will be tolerated and protected from discrimination. Thus, pressure groups are able to operate in an extremely free and tolerant environment.
In short, they are a key element in a pluralist society. Another argument that suggests pressure groups strengthen pluralist democracy is that pressure groups are a channel of representation between the people and the government, keeping government in touch with public opinion. Whether we take an active part or not, pressure groups represent our interests to those who govern. In virtually all our activities there is probably a group that is seeking to secure favourable legislation or decisions and to avoid unfavourable ones.
As motorists, hospital patients, students, environmentalists, workers, and so on, we can be sure there is a group that is fighting our corner. In some cases we may be active members and so know exactly what issues are being addressed. In other cases we are not active but are nevertheless being passively represented. Even the smallest minorities are likely to enjoy such benefits; so pressure groups have important representation functions to perform. Additionally, the government openly accept the existence of pressure groups and involve them in decision making.
They are a key part in the governing process. Their involvement at all stages of the policy and decision-making process helps to inform government itself and ensures that the interests and views of sections of the pubic are taken into account. In this sense, they can improve the quality of policy making. Governments also take into account the claims of pressure groups when making decisions. Pressure group activity in itself serves to enhance pluralist democracy by providing information and education to the public.
It is clear that groups offer a considerable amount of information to the people. They are, by definition, independent of government (if they were not, we could not describe them as pressure groups), so we are receiving important messages from which we can make sound judgements. Of course, we cannot always rely upon the information being totally accurate, but if we combine all the various sources of information available to us we are able to form some kind of reasonable judgement. So, pressure groups certainly help to inform and educate us, which enhances a pluralist democracy.
Pressure groups can be considered to widen the access to power and decision making for the mass of the citizens. The conventional view of pressure groups is that they help to spread power more widely. This would be seen by most commentators as an enhancement of democracy. Governments and parties tend to concentrate power in the hands of leaderships. Pressure groups, meanwhile, can empower their wider memberships. They represent the full range of the population and allow many voices to be heard.
As long as they have any influence, they give the politically active part of the population access to decision makers, either directly or indirectly. We see this particularly effectively when considering mass-membership groups such as Age UK or unions representing public service workers. However, there are arguments that pressure groups weaken pluralist democracy. Pressure group activity can be viewed as elitist from several perspectives. When we look at the wealthy, strategically important groups we can see evidence of elitism. Some pressure groups may, in fact, concentrate power in the hands of a few.
Governments favour certain groups who share their views or are at the time ‘electorally’ beneficial to their cause. The banking lobby can be seen as a prominent example, as can the various producer groups representing major industries. Producer groups, in particular, tend to represent their shareholders and management rather than their workers (a view that might be contested on the grounds that what is good for the industry is also good for its employees). When such elite are ‘insider’ groups, they might form powerful elite in combination with government.
Ministers who are more influenced by group leaderships than by wider memberships could be accused of further elitism. This can be related to outsider or insider status. Some groups because of their economic power have more influence than others and this causes a disruption of the pluralist democratic position. Some groups can afford advertising to get their message across and thus they ‘buy’ their power. Related to their position in society is the issue of wealth. Clearly some groups have access to considerably more funds than others.
All those sectional interests that represent employers and business in general inevitably have far more finance available to them than charities, which have to rely on hand-outs from the public or scarce lottery funding. The banking community is a similar example. In particular, wealthy groups, including individual companies, have adopted the practice of giving donations to political parties. Clearly they are hoping for a sympathetic attitude if their chosen party wins power. Perhaps more seriously, in 2006-07 it was alleged that a number of individuals had donated to political parties in return for the granting of peerages.
The so-called ‘cash for peerages’ scandal did much to undermine faith in British democracy and further highlighted the issue of undue influence by those who command great wealth. In conclusion, pressure groups do strengthen pluralist democracy through its pluralism, representative function in keeping the government additionally in-touch with public views, role of educating the public on issues and empowering them with informed decisions after pressure group observation, and their acknowledgement and influence on some government decision-making. It is more that fixed elitism holds pressure groups back from pure pluralist democracy.