Pressure groups and pluralist democracy

Report
PRESSURE GROUPS AND
PLURALIST DEMOCRACY
Revision
What is a Pluralist Democracy?
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A form of liberal democracy in which power is widely
dispersed
Citizen participation occurs through pressure groups (as
opposed to voting in elections)
Pressure group membership allows people to promote
diverse views, interests and grievances to the
government
The term can describe an existing system or present a
desirable alternative (to parliamentary democracy in
the case of the UK)
The UK could not be described as a fully pluralist
democracy, though it has clear elements of one
What is a Pluralist Democracy?
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The key issue is to what extent the UK is a pluralist
democracy?
Key features of a pluralist democracy
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Wide variety of political parties, associations and
pressure groups – different political beliefs are
allowed to thrive and there are multiple,
independent sources of information
Wide dispersal of power among competing groups
– power is not concentrated in an elite (though
groups need not be equal in power)
High level of internal responsiveness within groups –
leaders are accountable to members and decisionmaking is democratic
Key features of a pluralist democracy
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Open competition for all groups in the political
process – no single group can exclude any other
Impartial government – responsive to outcomes of
competing pressure group activity
How far is the UK a pluralist
democracy?
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The UK does have numerous and varied pressure
groups (estimates vary, but the number of groups is
in the thousands – one source says 7,000)
Governments accept existence of these groups –
some are highly involved in decision making
Pressure groups educate the public – awareness of
health issues such as smoking and obesity have
been promoted by pressure groups, as has domestic
violence
How far is the UK a pluralist
democracy?
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Opposing pressure groups compete openly – prosmoking group FOREST conflicts with anti-smoking
ASH; Countryside Alliance conflicted with antihunting groups
Pressure groups use digital democracy to enhance
pluralism – 38 Degrees, international organisation
Avaaz (www.avaaz.org) both use this means to
raise petitions and campaigns
How far is the UK a pluralist
democracy?
BUT
 Financial power and large memberships give some
groups considerably more influence – trade unions
with regards to Labour; the CBI for both parties
 The division of insider groups with influence, and
outsider groups without, suggest a clear
demarcation of power
 Many pressure groups do not exercise responsive
leadership, including prominent ones such as
Greenpeace
How far is the UK a pluralist
democracy?
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Hostile public opinion can restrict pressure group
influence (note here also the influence of the media) –
Republic operates in a climate where 80% of people
favour retention of the monarchy
Much evidence thus suggests that pressure group
activity is actually elitist in the UK, and does not
conform to the strict definition of a pluralist democracy
Our parliamentary system is strong enough to be able
to ignore the demands of a wide range of pressure
groups if it chooses.
Functional Representation
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Refers to a community that is divided into several
strata (or layers)
Each strata has a certain corporate unity and holds
that it should be represented in government
Citizens can, or should, be represented according to
their membership of economic or social groups
While the UK does not merit this description,
discussions of a reformed House of Lords have
suggested this form of representation as one option
Functional Representation
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Pressure groups are thus the main source of
functional representation in the UK
This is largely through sectional groups (eg trade
unions, professional associations)
Groups can articulate their demands and
preferences between elections
Groups protect special interests regardless of
changing political climate or election results
Representation of minority groups safeguards
against “tyranny of the majority”
Functional Representation
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Popular dissatisfaction with traditional politics and
politicians has led to a resurgence of interest in
functional representation – teaching unions and the
BMA both feel a need to remind government of the
interests of their practitioners against a hostile
governing class
We are, however, a long way from having a formal
functionally representative system
Pressure groups thus allow for elements of both
pluralist democracy and functional representation to
exist in a parliamentary system that is based on
territorial representation.
Elitism and Pressure Groups
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Elitism suggests an unequal distribution of power in
society, favouring a small group of influential or
powerful people over the majority
Various factors might promote such elitism – wealth and
social status are two
Elitism assumes a ‘power struggle’ in political society
Applied to pressure groups, elitism suggests some
pressure groups are more powerful than others
It contradicts a pluralist theory of democracy
Like pluralism, elitism is a way of defining the
distribution of political power in a society; it is applied
to pressure groups as they seek to exercise power in
society
Insider Groups
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Insider groups rarely have permanent insider status
Key groups often seen as ‘insider’ have recently
been unable to exercise decisive influence on policy
affecting them – eg BMA with NHS changes, Bar
Association with legal aid cuts, Howard League with
removal of books from prisoners, Police Federation
with regards to police reform promoted by Theresa
May.

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