Which pressure groups are the most powerful?
Some pressure groups are clearly more powerful than others. Some succeed while others fail. But what does ‘success’ mean? How can we weigh up pressure-group power or influence? These are difficult questions because ‘success’ may be measured in different ways. Success may mean:
* Affecting government policy – policy-making power.
* Pushing an issue up the political agenda – agenda-setting power. * Changing people’s values, perceptions and behaviour – ideological power
Another difficulty in measuring pressure-group power is that there is considerable debate about how power is distributed amongst pressure groups. There is disagreement, in particular, about whether pressure groups tend to widen the distribution of power, giving power to the people, or whether they tend to concentrate it, strengthening the already powerful. This is often portrayed as a battle between two rival theories of political power, pluralism and elitism. The debate has major implications for the relationship between pressure groups and democracy. In practice, a variety of factors affect the power of individual groups. These include the following: * Wealth
* Organization and leadership
* The government’s views
* Popular support
* The effectiveness of opposition
The most powerful pressure groups in the country are the ones that government must listen to because they have financial and economic power – they are wealthy. This largely explains the power of business groups. Why does government listen to major corporations (such as Shell, BP, Barclays, ICI, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, BAE Systems, BT and Vodaphone) and to their peak groups and trade associations? Business groups have a number of key advantages over other groups: * As the main source of employment and investment in the economy, all governments, regardless of their ideological beliefs, must seek their cooperation and support. * They possess knowledge and expertise that are essential to the formulation of economic, industrial and trade policies. * They possess the financial strength to employ professional lobbyists and public relations consultants, and to make donations to political parties. * They often have high public profiles, have access to the media and can run advertising campaigns.
Trade unions also have economic power, which can be exercised through strikes, ‘working to rule’, ‘go-slows’ and other forms of industrial action. However, industrial action of this kind has two drawbacks. It penalizes workers themselves (through a loss of wages and perhaps job insecurity) and it risks undermining public support (because it causes disruption and inconvenience).
Does size matter? Are the largest pressure groups the most powerful? This is one of the assumptions that is made by pluralist theorists, who believe that pressure group power is democratically based. Membership size certainly has advantages: * Large groups can claim to represent public opinion. Government listens to them because, at the end of the day, their members can have an electoral impact. Groups such as the RSPB, the Consumers’ Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) therefore ensure that their membership levels remain above 1 million. * More members means more subscriptions and donations. Large groups tend to be wealthy groups. This has led to the growth of so-called ‘chequebook’ groups (such as The Worldwide Fund for Nature or WWF), which aim to achieve mass memberships but leave campaigning in the hands of full-time professionals. About 90% of Greenpeace’s total income comes from its members. * A large membership allows groups to organize political campaigns and protests. Groups such as trade unions and CND use their members as a key resource. Members are the main people who turn up to marches and demonstrations.
However, it would be a mistake to believe...
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