Is the golden age of pressure groups coming to an abrupt end?

'After such a brief time as significant political actors, could they be quitting the global stage?'
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The Independent Online

Just as they are becoming accepted as an essential part of modern politics, the golden age of pressure groups may be about to end.

Just as they are becoming accepted as an essential part of modern politics, the golden age of pressure groups may be about to end.

We have got used to relying on organisations such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International or Oxfam to see that the right thing is done about the planet, human rights or development. As consumers and citizens, we trust them more than governments, politics, "Europe" or the United Nations.

Yet before the age of television, such organisations hardly existed. For them the last 30 years have been a golden age, in which mass media allowed creative people to pursue social issues through a new and very public form of politics. Greenpeace and television brought us saving the whale and, in 1995, a blow-by-blow drama as Shell was shamed into not dumping the redundant Brent Spar oil facility in the sea. France was denigrated worldwide as Greenpeace sailed on the tests at Moruroa. Development groups hit the big time in public awareness through the BBC and Live Aid. Now it could all be about to end.

These "non-governmental organisations" (NGOs) and pressure groups will not disappear altogether, but they may be about to drop from view and suffer a dramatic fall in influence. After a brief summer as significant political actors, could they be quitting the global stage?

Pressure groups gave people more power over their lives - what social scientists call "agency" - in a way that work, politics and education never did. By joining an organisation such as Greenpeace, you could change something that was otherwise far beyond your reach. But the power and influence of these groups rested on being able to communicate with opponents and allies in a very public dialogue, through the media. Now that strategy is being eroded from two sides.

First, the greening and ethical conversion of business increasingly provides a quicker, cheaper, more modern, powerful and user-friendly way of converting your values to action, than joining a membership organisation to support a cause. Why join an organisation if you can make your ethical mark on life by how you shop?

Second, groups such as Shelter or CND rose to prominence through adroit political use of the mass media. It was important that it was mass media and not just "well targeted". When they scored a success or raised a new problem, lots of "bystanders" got to hear about it.

Now "new media" means that "mass media" will fragment. As television and the Net converge, they will create a choice of thousands of channels. NGOs will no longer be able to rely on national television or newspapers as a way to talk to "society".

So there is a pincer movement. On the one hand, we won't feel that we need NGOs to be green or to show that we care for the poor, hungry or threatened. Buy the cornflakes, save the forest. On the other, unless we are members of a pressure group, or subscribe to a specialist information service, we won't see or hear much about them. We won't happen across news reports of voluntary group activities because general news media will be less general, with a narrower, shorter, briefer agenda. Organisations will find that they are talking more and more to signed-up supporters, less and less to general sympathisers.

Would this be a bad thing, if business now performs well, if commerce supplies organic food, green electricity and ethical pensions, if ecotourism finances rainforest preservation, and if schoolchildren or parents can get instant access to any environmental information they want for nothing? Who needs worthy awareness campaigns when Benetton does it with advertising for free?

I think it is a bad thing because society needs these groups a lot more than the standard media portrayal suggests, or administrations like the Blair government are willing to admit.

They are needed because their very public type of politics enables people to put great trust in them - much more trust, at least, than they place in business or politicians, for the perfectly good reason that business exists to make money and therefore can't be trusted with public goods such as the environment or human rights, and politicians are seen to be more and more responsive to business and less and less responsive to the public.

The groups also redress a democratic deficit created by the restricted economic focus of left-right politics. Far more effective than focus groups, they give individuals a way to exert some influence over the machinery of government, and business. Most of the press still portrays such groups as marginal, but in truth they represent a vast "fifth" estate without which most modern societies would not function in an intelligent, responsive way.

Now the pressure groups must find a new voice in the new media, and unique functions that distinguish them from look-alike businesses, which are their real competition.

Change is hard because they are at a peak of success. Médecin Sans Frontiÿres, Oxfam or WWF are global brands; the envy of many businesses. The groups know that without their participation, many ostensibly inter-governmental processes - treaties, conventions, the work of UN agencies - would simply grind to a halt.

In fact, globalisation poses the same dilemma to pressure groups as it does to governments. Politicians have had to come to terms with the uncomfortable fact that the boundaries of financial and commercial markets no longer coincide with political boundaries. Unable completely to control events inside or outside their boundaries, governments have accepted competitive interdependence, for example through the EU - exchanging some sovereignty in return for greater access to each others' markets. They also club together to support organisations such as the WTO in the hope that they can influence the terms of global economic activity by pooling their residual authority.

The voluntary sector now needs to carve out its own sovereign space in the new media, so that it can continue its free conversation with society. Pressure groups now need to co-operate so that the "ethical sector" can still communicate with the public, independent of business.

The writer is the former deputy director of Greenpeace UK