The term ‘interest group’ is used here to mean any social group which pursues shared interests. Any such group might wish to exert political pressure if its interests were threatened by governance decisions. Interest groups have several mechanisms available to them: they can lobby politicians by contacting them directly and promising to bring them popular support; they can offer them money (legally, in the form of campaign funding, or illegally by bribing them); and they can influence public opinion by using marketing techniques such as advertising, holding public events and publishing opinions in the media. Some of them, like Greenpeace and Amnesty International, are global.
Interest groups include the following:
· ‘Political pressure groups’ are formed with the prime purpose of influencing policy – perhaps to have a hand on the ‘joystick’ (6.2.6). They include political parties, their subsections (which are sometimes known as ‘splinter groups’), think tanks, Local Residents’ Associations etc.
· People with a shared ethnicity may form organisations for various social purposes which, in the case of religious organisations for example, may have formal governance structures of their own. These ethnic organisations may become politically active as ‘ethnic interest groups’ on topics of particular or concern to them.
· Economic organisations – which include Chambers of Commerce, Employers’ Federations and Trade Unions – are usually formed with the prime purpose of exerting power in the Economic Dimension, but they may also become active as ‘economic interest groups’ in the Political Dimension of governance. Trade Unions, for example, can press for improvements in legislation on employment protection and to increase the minimum wage.
· ‘Environmental interest groups’ – which include major names like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife and also a host of smaller groups – are active in supporting environmental improvement projects, but are also involved in influencing public opinion and politicians.
Representatives of interest groups exert political influence but they differ from politicians as defined in this book (6.1.2) in that they have not been given powers to act on behalf of the people as a whole. Some individuals within interest groups may have been formally elected to have a governance role in the group context, and some may be assigned specific responsibilities for influencing politicians on behalf of their groups.
Interest groups don't have rights as such; their role is to represent the interests and protect the rights of their members. Members strengthen the groups they belong to, both financially and politically, by paying subscriptions and being registered as supporting them. The members don't have to be politically active themselves but they know that, if necessary, their views will be represented by the group.
Interest groups can also represent their members in consultation processes; this is a different role from applying unsolicited pressure – but it is equally important (6.5.3). Governments may consult economic interest groups when deciding upon economic regulations, for example.
© PatternsofPower.org, 2014