Beyond consultation: political decision-making

When the level of conflict increases, ties to interest groups associated with non-centrist policy positions will, in particular, involve a higher risk of repelling centrist voters.

Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of these three Labour administrations was the introduction of a consultation process whenever a reformed or new policy, scheme, law, major project or other regulatory aspect is intended to be introduced.

It has become the norm to launch a public consultation process during a specific timeframe whereby feedback and suggestions are received while the minister, department, or government agency involved holds discussions and consultations with all the stakeholders concerned. Whether there is a follow-up to such a process, how much it is followed up, or to what extent is another story.

Labour and interest groups

During the last few years, the Labour government and interest groups have played a vital role in incorporating societal interests into democratic decision-making. Explaining the nature and variation in the relationship between them will advance our understanding of democratic governance. But even before embarking on such an understanding, it is important to understand the Labour Movement’s structured interactions with different categories of interest groups that vary systematically with the pattern of party competition at the level of policy dimensions.

The Labour Movement and interest groups have proven themselves to be intermediaries in democracy and contributed to new agendas connecting interest group expectations with the Labour government and party’s policy positions and responsiveness.

The degree to which the contact between the Movement and interest groups is structured or regularised is likely to play a key role in determining the access interest groups enjoy to decision-makers on specific issues. How the government and the Movement choose to interact with interest groups may matter for the quality of political representation and public policy outputs. The strategic electoral context in which they operate is key to understanding their relationship to interest groups.

Party competition in policy spaces

Variation in the pattern of party competition in different policy spaces affects whether organisational ties to specific categories of interest groups are maintained or established. Parties often need input from interest groups in the policy-making process, but not all choose to forge highly structured interactions with particular groups. Indeed, formalised relations do not seem widespread. As parties and interest groups will have to deal with many different issues, interacting on an ad hoc basis is probably the default position in order to retain freedom of manoeuvre.

Highly institutionalised relationships go back to the early days of party politics in modern democracies – like those between the Malta Labour Party of the 1970s and the General Workers’ Union – and they tended to decay over time along with old social cleavages. Such a close party-group relationship was deeply rooted in a shared ideology. External collateral organisations have generally declined over time. In particular, their access to the parties’ national executive committees has weakened.

Be that as it may, interactions and organisational ties between the government, the Movement, and groups still exist, with new cases emerging. The predominant explanation for such party-group relationships lies in what the two sides individually and mutually offer each other in terms of tangible resources, like votes and financial support for the Movement, access to Government, and favourable legislation for groups. By institutionalising interactions, the Movement and interest groups ensure that the exchange of resources between them becomes stable.

An issue-based struggle

I would define party competition as an issue-based struggle taking place in a multidimensional policy space. Unlike interest groups, the PL and the PN often have positions on a wide range of issues and, thus, on multiple ideological dimensions. This means that they need to consider potential relationships with a large number of actors when deciding whether to engage with particular types of interest groups.

Furthermore, the pattern of party competition might vary within and across policy dimensions, both in terms of fragmentation (the number of relevant parties) and polarisation (the ideological distance between parties). The key question is to what extent parties’ approach to interest groups varies systematically with these contextual characteristics of party competition along different policy dimensions.

My argument in this sense is twofold. First, parties that compete with other parties in a dimensional policy space have stronger reasons to fear voter loss (to a neighbouring party) and thus have a greater incentive to nurture organisational ties to the groups occupying this space than parties facing fewer or no competitors.

Second, high polarisation — that is, large positional distance between the furthest parties along a given policy dimension — may have a negative effect on the strength of organisational ties between parties and interest groups. When the level of conflict increases, ties to interest groups associated with non-centrist policy positions will, in particular, involve a higher risk of repelling centrist voters for most parties. For example, trade unions are usually left-of-centre on the redistribution dimension, while religious groups are at the conservative end of the social lifestyle dimension. Ties to such groups have previously affected parties’ and groups’ policy positions.

Actions based on beliefs and values

Evaluating possible ties in light of the Labour Party’s basic ideological orientation is useful for its goal-seeking in several ways. First, the party’s policy profiles are relevant when it comes to assessing the value of the information interest groups provide as specialists in their domain. Obviously, it can be useful to learn what groups with non-aligned preferences know and think, but by establishing ties with groups with similar policy preferences, the party and, indirectly, the country’s administration, will more likely gain access to information, helping them to develop and promote their policies and to identify potentially sympathetic voters.

Interest groups target legislators who are their presumed allies rather than likely opponents. Successful lobbying is often not about changing the minds of legislators but about subsidising like-minded legislators with, for example, information. Obviously, a group might be close to a party on one issue and distant on another, but not all groups have positions on multiple dimensions, and if in conflict, parties’ issue salience will probably decide.

Last but not least, the Labour government and party must constantly remember that individuals have a coherent set of preferences, gather the necessary information to reach an informed decision, evaluate alternative courses of action, and choose actions that are optimally related to their beliefs and values.

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