An interest group is an organization that shares a mutual interest and works together to safeguard and endorses that interest by persuading the government. Apart from the “hierarchical world of public servants and the parliamentary world of party politics,” the British political structure also includes interest groups (Palekar). Interest groups are essentially seen as democratizing the policy-making process by “addressing a decline in political participation, engaging citizens in democratic processes of government, schooling citizens in politics and addressing the political exclusion of marginalized constituencies” (Halpin). The United Kingdom has clear elements of a Pluralist democracy, where public policy decisions are mostly taken by the government, but many non- governmental organizations also use their power to influence these policies. Since all these groups have competing interests, they ensure the government is aware of and tackles the problems being faced by its citizens. Unlike political parties, which focus on many issues, “interest groups are essentially sectional and wish to influence government only on specific policies” (Jones).
Interest groups provide the public, especially minorities, a platform to voice their views so that they can be taken into account by the government. “Decision-making is the essence of political dynamics, and the efficiency of a political system is to be measured in terms of its capacity to make decisions that are widely accepted” (Palekar). The relationship between interest groups and government officials is usually mutually beneficial; interest groups may be helpful to ministers and other government officials as they lack the expert knowledge required to make comprehensive policies, and the ability to effectively implement them. Ministers “frequently turn to the relevant representative organizations to find out defects in an existing line of policy and seek suggestions as to how things might be improved” (Jones). Consequently, favorable relations with ministers and civil servants make it easier for interest groups to lobby for their interest and influence government policies in their favor. The ultimate aim of interest groups in the United Kingdom is to gain a consultative status with the government. Groups such as “The Conference of British Industry, the Trades Union Council, the Country Councils Association and the like, attain their result in closed-door consultation with the ministry,” which allows them to achieve their goals rapidly (Palekar).
Interest groups contribute towards a healthier democracy by allowing for “continuity of representation between elections” (Jones). Since elections in the United Kingdom are held every five years, citizens have no influence over decisions made during this time period; amid elections, becoming a member of interest groups is essentially the key method through which citizens can participate in politics and help improve the policy-making process. Over the last few years, the number of British citizens who have actively joined interest groups is greater than the membership of political parties. In fact, “Membership of the Labor party has declined from 1 million to 200,000, and the Conservative Party from 3 million to 300,000 in 2002, meanwhile membership of the National Trust for England and Wales has soared to 2.8 million and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds increased to 1.02 million” (Jordan). Since political parties cannot provide adequate representation for the diverse range of perspectives of the general public, interest groups help express the repressed frustration and allow the people to adequately express their grievances to the government. This is usually done by analyzing the imprudent policy decisions taken by the government and exposing maladministration. Actions of interest groups can have a lingering impact on the citizens. It is rather ironic that the techniques such as protests, strikes, boycotts, among others, which are used by interest groups to influence government policies usually negatively impact the image of the government in the media. This fear of a bad image motivates the government to take policies that encompass the needs of all the representative groups of the society. If the government is held accountable for its decisions and the impact its policies have on the general public, it tends to take into account the suggestions put forth by interest groups, subsequently leading to a more democratic setup.
“Expectations about the democratizing and participative potential of groups is no doubt also shaped by images of groups as ‘little democracies'” (Halpin). Interest groups help prevent ignorance among the general public by encouraging open discussion and debate. Since interest groups essentially challenge previously accepted opinions, they broaden perspectives and beliefs, leading to a well-informed public and prevent stagnation of political and social issues. They hold frequent conferences, where members are able to discuss their issues and contemplate a plan of action to achieve their goals. “Far from weakening democratic government, these groups played an essential part in it, providing a channel of communication between those responsible for policy and the people most affected by it” (Palekar). Becoming a member of an interest group allows people belonging to lower-middle-class families to be politically aware and gives them the ability to contact the representative members of the Parliament. In other words, they educate public arguably better than political parties do, as they do it in a more accessible and approachable way.
Due to immense diversity and difference of opinion in the UK, people often feel isolated and are unable to voice their views. Interest groups “provide functional representation according to occupation and belief” (Jones). These groups properly organize individuals and ensure they influence the policy-making process. In the UK, the Countryside Alliance effectively organized people living in rural areas and was successful in promoting issues such as farming, small businesses, among other concerns faced by rural Britain. It aimed to “Give Rural Britain a Voice” by focusing on problems that were overlooked by the government (The Countryside Alliance). Moreover, an amendment proposed by the countryside alliance, which “removes the uncertainty in the existing law as to who is an ‘occupier’ of premises for the purpose of lending a shotgun or rifle on that land,” was passed by the House of Lords and was incorporated into the Policing and Crime Bill (Firearms Law – Policing and Crime Act Q&A). The inclusion of this amendment further emphasizes the argument that even members belonging to communities that have been overlooked by the government can influence government legislature in their favor if they organize themselves into interest groups.
Despite the positive impact and the democratizing effect of interest groups on the policy-making process in the UK, they also have some disadvantages and harm democracy. Usually, “the freedom to organize and influence is exploited by the rich and powerful groups in society; the poor and weak often have to rely on poorly financed cause groups and charitable bodies” (Jones). The lack of financial resources essentially prevents interest groups from campaigning and providing a platform for their members. This, in turn, creates an imbalance of power and representation, which prevents marginalized groups from voicing their interests effectively. Often, politicians tend to take policy decisions in favor of rich and powerful interest groups, in exchange for bribes. In June 2013, BBC and the Daily Telegraph conducted a joint operation through which they exposed “four parliamentarians who had potentially breached codes of conduct in the House of Commons and House of Lords by agreeing to act as paid lobbyists and to ask parliamentary questions in exchange for payment” (Barrett). The journalists posed as an interest group called ‘Friends of Fiji’ and approached Patrick Mercer, a member of the British Parliament, to help them gain admission into the Commonwealth. The published report exposed that Mercer took a bribe of £2,000 a month to further their cause at the House of Commons. “Under parliamentary rules, Mercer should have declared the payment from Friends of Fiji in each of these interventions – but he failed to do so” (Barrett). This example further proves that imbalance of resources among interest groups marginalizes the poor groups and further creates a situation of mutual distrust among interest groups and the government, thus harming democracy.
In the UK, many interest groups try to influence the policy-making process behind closed doors, thus reducing transparency, which is the foundation of democracy. According to a report published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2014, “the government had been influenced to reverse a policy plan on minimum alcohol pricing after receiving an avalanche of lobbying activity from the alcoholic drinks industry” (Barrett). The report further exposed that members of the British Parliament conducted 130 meetings with interest groups lobbying on behalf of the alcoholic drinks industry while they were deliberating on price controls. These meetings were not “publicly documented because they were not with Ministers or the most senior civil servants, to whom transparency rules apply, but rather with middle-ranking civil servants” (Barrett). Although this preferential treatment allows powerful interest groups to easily achieve their goals, the weaker interest groups are forced to go through ineffective channels and barely influence the government legislature in their favor.
In conclusion, interest groups in the UK are increasingly effective in influencing government policies and making them more representative of the problems faced by minority groups. “Interest groups are associated with greater stability in some measures of policy and mediate the stabilizing impact of democracy on policy (Heckelman). By allowing for continued representation and voicing of public interests between elections, interest groups have succeeded in scrutinizing the government and ensuring a more stable policy-making process than autocracies. Interest groups have increased political awareness in the UK by encouraging open debate and discussion, thus scrutinizing and eventually improving government policies. Government legislature can also be heavily influenced by isolated members of the society if they organize themselves into strong interest groups. However, strong interest groups sometimes undermine democracy by reducing transparency in the policy-making process. “Much influence is applied informally and secretly behind the closed doors of ministerial meetings, joint civil service advisory committees or informal meetings in London clubs” (Jones). Furthermore, the rich and powerful interest groups are able to influence laws in their favor due to their massive financial resources and personal connections with government officials, which increase the gap between the rich and the poor sections of the society. Although strong interest groups help improve the impact of government policies on the general public and increase public satisfaction with the government, they also need to be regulated by policies that prevent wealthy interest groups from dominating the policy-making process. This is possible by increasing “sanctions for misconduct, including criminal offenses for serious breaches of legislative codes of conduct” (Barrett). Thus, an overview of the impact of strong interest groups concludes that they positively influence the government and the policy-making process.