Form a party or start a pressure group? The choice facing nascent political movements

When you’re an under-represented group, changing policy is hard. Do you form a party or start a pressure group? Disagreements about the best way forward have historically riven the Green movement in both France and the UK. Ben Farrer (Knox College) explains why activists need to think about how national institutions in their country work before they can establish the best way to make their voice heard. Electoral systems and corporatism are particularly important. 

pau protest

Environmental activists from Les Amis de la Terre and other organisations protest against an offshore drilling summit in Pau, France in 2016. Photo: CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

In some countries, like Germany and Finland, the environmental movement has spawned a powerful new political party: the Green Party. In others – like the US and the UK – more resources have been channelled through interest groups like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth. In my book ‘Organizing For Policy Influence’ I explain why under-represented groups like environmentalists sometimes choose to form a party, and sometimes opt to form an interest group instead.

These organisational choices are important – not only because these organisations have gone on to affect electoral competition and policy outcomes, but also because these choices have created heated disagreements between environmental activists. For example, in France in the 1980s, two of the best-known environmentalists were Antoine Waechter, of the French Green Party, and Brice Lalonde, founder of the interest group Amis de la Terre. The two men were both environmentalists, but had starkly different views on how to advance the cause. Waechter was wedded to the idea of a stand-alone Green Party, whereas Lalonde leaned towards the idea of a compromise-minded interest group. Unfortunately for French environmentalism, the dispute was not easily resolved:

“Here began a bitter and damaging rivalry that would last more than a decade, well into the 1990s – effectively locking the environmentalists out of the French parliament, as well as wasting their energies in bickering and mutual recriminations” – (Bess 2003, p.105).

This is just one example of the type of internecine struggles that occur over organisational choice. In the UK in the early 2000s, the well-known environmentalist George Monbiot applauded interest groups like Greenpeace but had harsh criticism for Jonathon Porritt of the UK Green Party. In a public exchange with Porritt, Monbiot claimed that the Green Party were selling out to mainstream politics, and that they valued good relationships with the establishment more than the environment:

“Greenpeace, in other words, is prepared to use the stick as well as the carrot. It’s not clear to me that you are using either” (Monbiot and Porritt, 2000, p2).

Porritt responded by defending electoral politics, and retorted that Monbiot had also ‘sold out’ to the establishment:

“I haven’t noticed you refusing to work for The Guardian unless they stop carrying adverts for the companies you so despise.” (Monbiot and Porritt 2000, p3).

Other examples can be found in almost every industrialised democracy. Internationally-recognised Green Party candidates, such as Ralph Nader in the US, and Joachim Fischer in Germany, have been the targets of verbal and physical abuse from environmentalists who disagreed with the choice of party organisation. Nothing seems to tear environmentalists apart quite like the issue of organisational choice. I try to cut through some of the emotion of these arguments.

All under-represented groups – environmentalists included – make decisions about what kind of organisation to form, based on how much policy influence they think they can get. Although interest groups are often easier to form, certain types of national institution can insulate mainstream politicians from interest groups. When institutions combine to reduce the amount of policy influence you can get through an interest group, activists are forced to send the stronger signal of party entry. I used a cross-national analysis and relied on empirical data to offer one possible answer to the debate about whether political parties or interest groups are more effective.

So when Lalonde and Waechter disagreed over how to organise the environmentalist movement in France, was one of them right, and one of them wrong? Was Monbiot right to lambast Porritt for ‘selling out’ to electoral politics?

I argue that there is no single organisation that is universally optimal. But whilst there may not be one ‘best’ organisational form, we can still predict, for any given country, what the optimal organisational choice will be. The key is to use national institutions to predict the access costs and response costs for different organisations. Maximising policy influence means finding out how to get the most access possible, given your resources, and to make sure that access will actually result in a response. Interest groups are the least costly choice, and it is only when corporatism is high – as it is in France – that parties become the optimal organisational choice. I therefore suggest that the evidence was on the side of those who focused on interest group actions in the UK (in this instance, Monbiot), and those who favoured party actions in France (Waechter).

Most of the earlier work on this question has focused on predicting niche party entry, without considering other potential organisational choices. I claim instead that niche parties are formed only if they are the optimal mechanism for achieving policy influence. If institutional rules make interest groups the optimal organisation instead, then niche party entry becomes less likely. Interest group systems and party systems are therefore intimately linked. This modifies a key finding in the field – Duverger’s (1954) law – which does not consider alternatives to party entry. Since party entry is easiest in countries with proportional representation, it is in precisely those countries that we should see existing parties making the most effort to pre-empt new competitors by being responsive to interest groups. It is only when other institutions, specifically corporatism, make this impossible that we will see Duverger’s law enforced to its fullest extent.

Ultimately, the type of organisation that activists decide to form will determine the level of policy influence that they achieve. Even small groups of activists can punch above their weight, if they make the right organisational choice – and it is political institutions that determine it. I have focused on environmentalists as an example of an under-represented group in democratic societies, but ethnic and sexual identity minorities advocating for social justice, as well as the populist radical right, are other examples of groups that make organisational choices in order to maximise their policy influence. It is important to see these groups as strategic actors in search of policy influence.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit.

Organizing for Policy Influence is published by Routledge.

benjamin farrerBenjamin Farrer is Assistant Professor at the Environmental Studies Department, Knox College.

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