In the News

Don't Pay UK - A New Pressure Group

Mike McCartney

9th August 2022

Don't Pay UK - looks interesting

The emergence of this new group can be the subject of a fascinating case study for new A Level Politics students this year.

I have been saying for months that there is a ticking time bomb in the UK in the shape of the cost of living crisis.

And the major parties haven't really been saying much about it.

The consequences of a near tripling of domestic energy bills in the space of a year is a massive issue. Some basic arithmetic suggests that working full time on the minimum wage will still leave many struggling to pay their bills this winter.

Into this gap steps Don't Pay UK, with echoes of the Anti-Poll Tax Alliance in the late eighties (which this writer had some association with - I'll say no more).

So this new group should deserve close analysis.

What are its methods, how do we measure the success of the organisation, do groups like these enhance or damage democracy (there are concerns that not paying bills could seriously damage household finances, or worse) and so on.

Lots of previous blog posts have covered these arguments. There is also something to be said about fitting the group into the debate over the extent to which pressure groups have supplanted parties in the democratic process. See below for a general framework of arguments.

This is the link to a recent story about the group's cause

This is their website. Well worth a look, and I suspect that some students will want to get involved??

To what extent are pressure groups now more or less significant than parties?

The following can be seen as ways in which pressure groups are more important than parties today.

Pressure groups have much larger memberships than parties, with groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the National Trust and the Countryside Alliance having huge memberships and others having extensive numbers of supporters, such as Help the Aged. By contrast party membership has trended downwards (despite a brief revival for the Labour Party/boost in SNP membership).

While activism in parties is also on the decline, many pressure groups are able to mobilise large numbers of people to demonstrate (Stop the Iraq war) or to take part in e-petitions (anti road pricing schemes) or to lobby MPs (Age Concern).

Politics is arguably less ideological and more consensual. This means party conflict is less relevant while single issue politics has come to the fore. Pressure groups can concern themselves more effectively with single issues than parties.

Governments today are more sensitive to public opinion than in the past. Pressure groups are better vehicles for public opinion on specific issues than parties can be.

The media are now more politically active than ever. They reflect issue demands and therefore give pressure groups opportunities for influence. By contrast parties have become discredited.

The following can be seen as ways in which pressure groups remain less significant than parties.

British government remains essentially party government. This means that parties dominate the political agenda and organise the business of Parliament. Governments are usually formed from single parties and operate on a single party mandate.

It can be argued that pressure groups simply frustrate each other’s demands. In other words most pressure groups have counter-balancing forces against them. Parties are able to aggregate policy and balance conflicting demands.

Most pressure groups still represent minorities in society. Parties can be more concerned with the national interest. This applies, for example, over such issues as taxation, subsidies for sectors of the economy, rights of the community as a whole against those of minorities.

Pressure groups suffer from lack of accountability. This reduces the legitimacy of their demands.

As pressure groups do not stand for election they have no mandate and have no direct involvement in the governing process. There are also questions over the degree to which they are representative, whereas parties claim representation through election.

Much is made of the size of pressure groups and how they tower over parties in terms of membership numbers. But what do over a million members of the RSPB actually do? Chequebook membership accounts for a higher percentage of numbers in pressure groups than parties, whose members help select candidates, deliver leaflets, etc. – all activities that form part of a healthy democracy.

Pressure group activity often undermines their cause, e.g. publicity stunts by F4J increased awareness of fathers’ rights, but there wasn’t any cause and effect in policy terms. Maybe we could same the same about Extinction Rebellion and the environment?

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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