Political parties and interest groups sometimes work closely together and have strong organisational ties, while others have more limited connections. Drawing on a new study, Elin Haugsgjerd Allern, Vibeke Wøien Hansen, Simon Otjes and David Marshall examine the full diversity of relationships that exist between parties and interest groups.
The relationship between parties and interest groups can be diverse. Some parties and groups foster very strong organisational ties: they have representatives on each other’s boards and meet regularly in a joint co-cooperation committee or similar. A second set of pairs only routinely invite each other to events like annual congresses or seminars, while others do not interact in a structured manner at all.
In a recent study, we examine the full diversity of relations between parties and interest groups. Both parties and interest groups are important players in the democratic process. They both seek to exert influence on public policy. When they operate in concert, they can have a big impact. When they oppose each other, they can cancel each other out. Above all, their relationships are important for the political decision-making process. Organisational ties mean stable access to decisionmakers on both sides and may affect how well parties represent their voters.
Essentially, we can differentiate between three kinds of relationships: parties and interest groups that have no organisational relationship at all, parties and groups that foster a highly institutionalised relationship and parties and groups that fall in between. We expect that different features of both the parties and groups contribute to these different kinds of relationships. More precisely, we place parties and groups on a scale from strong organisational ties to weak or no organisational ties.
Groups interested in some kind of relationship with a party, however weak and informal, probably seek broad policy-goals that are ideological of nature: that is, they are able to locate themselves along ideological conflict dimensions about policy, like the one concerning views on state regulations of the economy, instead of only having a narrow policy position on single issues. We therefore expect that organisational ties between a party and an interest group are likely to be absent if the group is non-ideological, such as for a typical patient group, in its policy orientation.
When it comes to the strength of existing organisational ties, we expect that these are stronger dependent on how much the party and the group can offer each other in a resource exchange relationship. Groups prefer ties to more powerful parties as these are vehicles that they can use to influence public policy. Parties want ties to groups that can offer them financial and organisational support and specialist information that will allow them to be more successful in adopting or implementing public policy.
We therefore expect that the strength of ties follows the power that a party has (in terms of seats in parliament and access to government) and that it follows the extent to which groups offer the party donations, endorse it in public before elections and have organisational resources to provide the party with high-quality information.
For the most intense relationships, the strongest types of ties, we expect that exclusive resources that groups can offer parties matter the most: if the group provides a party with the group’s plan for a new wind farm, they can also share it with another party. Information is not exclusive. The other things that groups can offer parties are endorsements during election campaigns and contributions to party funds. Financial contributions are particularly exclusive resources that cannot be redeployed and reused once spent.
An empirical test
To test our expectations, we use data from the broader Party-Interest Group Relationships in Contemporary Democracies (PAIRDEM) project. In this project, we surveyed interest groups in seven established democracies. We have responses from more than 800 groups (from random samples), with each group being asked about their relationships with all parties represented in parliament.
We asked about the kinds of organisational ties – more or less formal arrangements and routines securing regular interaction between them – they have. Our dependent variable is the sum of thirteen different ties. We explicitly examine when groups have a zero score versus another score on this scale and when they have durable organisational ties (joint party-group arrangements, like a liaison committee) as opposed to weaker event-based ties (like regularised congress invitations).
To measure the extent to which groups are ideological in their policy orientation, we asked them to place themselves on six policy dimensions (including various economic issues, migration, the environment, and social lifestyle issues). We find that the fewer policy positions a group takes, the more likely they are to score “no ties” to parties. This is also true for groups with a small budget and staff.
We also find that organisational ties are stronger if groups can deliver resources to parties in terms of electoral support and most likely high-quality information by means of their own organisational resources (budget and staff). We also note that a party’s ability to provide access to political power is positively associated with having shared organisational ties. Donations to parties are particularly important for stronger ties. In the same way that there is a “hierarchy of ties” (in terms of institutionalisation) there is a “hierarchy of resources”.
When we think about the ties between groups and parties, we thus look at an unequal world with three different tiers. On the one hand, there are the few groups that have very intensive ties to political parties. What stands out here is that this kind of privileged access is expensive as it often reflects financial donations from groups to parties, in addition to proximity on major policy issues.
In the second tier, we have event-based and less formal organisational ties. Here we find the classic story of party-group interaction, as in contact and access based on regular ad-hoc lobbying, with groups focusing on more important parties and parties focusing on groups that can really offer them something when policies are to be made.
Most of the groups however fall into the third category. Although we, as political scientists, are often very preoccupied with the party-political arena, far from all interest groups think in this way. More than half of the groups we surveyed did not have any organisational ties to any political party. The average group had one tie. The relationship is highly unbalanced, with a few groups having very strong ties but most of them having none.
The average group will place itself on less than three of the six “partisan” policy dimensions. Groups, in general, have a much narrower issue focus than what parties have. This also contributes to a lack of interaction between parties and groups. Still, when the interests of parties and groups are aligned, and there are resources on offer, we observe mutual organisational relationships that are likely to affect policy outcomes over time, just as occurred in the heyday of “traditional relationships” like those between social democratic parties and trade unions.
For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper in the European Journal of Political Research
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Day Of Victory Studio/Shutterstock.com