Elections and a party system provide one way in which the views of an individual can be represented in government; an alternative is via pressure group activity. Like competing political parties, the existence of pressure groups is usually regarded as an important indicator of a democratic system of government. For many citizens in democratic countries, joining such a group is seen as a much more effective way of influencing government than through the party system.
Whereas political parties seek influence by formally contesting political office, pressure groups seek to influence government in other ways, although this distinction is increasingly becoming blurred. In essence pressure groups (or ‘lobbies’) are collections of like-minded people who have voluntarily joined together to try to influence government thinking and behaviour and to represent the interest of their members.
As a sectional interest within society, pressure groups provide a vehicle through which a collective and non-party political view can be articulated in decision-making circles; as such they can be said to operate as kind of safety-valve within a democratic system of government. The political environment The failure of markets to take into account the external costs and benefits of economic behaviour is often put forward as a key justification for government intervention in the economy.
Thus while governments on the whole prefer to allow the market to determine most economic choices, there are circumstances in which the state feels it appropriate to use means such as legislation, regulation and fiscal intervention to shape some of the day-to-day decisions made by individuals and organisations. The environment has increasingly become one such arena of government action.
Writing in the Guardian on 2 February 2002, Philip Willan reported that the President of Italy’s Lombardy region was planning to ban the sale of new petrol- and diesel-powered cars as part of an ambitious plan to reduce the chronic levels of air pollution being experienced by local citizens in many of the region’s large towns and cities.
In Lombardy, one of the industrial powerhouses of Europe, the problem has proved particularly acute; hence the response by the regional authorities. In essence the President’s plan is to challenge car manufacturers to design alternative ‘green’ vehicles for introduction from 2005 onwards.
In practice, of course, it is often difficult to make such a clear-cut distinction, given that some interest groups such as trade unions often associate themselves with particular causes and may campaign vigorously alongside other groups in support of or against the issue concerned.
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