Pluralist democracy is a type of democratic system under which various groups and organisations are actively involved in governing, rather than power being in the hands of elected representatives. It is an alternative to UK-style parliamentary democracy and in, theory, ensures that power is more evenly dispersed than it is in democratic systems where an elite maintains substantial power and influence.
A healthy pluralist democracy will exhibit a number of conditions. These include a wide dispersal of power amongst competing groups, the absence of an elite, a high level of government responsiveness, a neutral government machine and party political leaders being accountable to leaders. An example of even dispersal of power might be found in industrial relations, where both big business and trade unions have an equal capacity to influence policy.
In the UK
Pluralism can be seen at work in the UK to an extent. Pressure groups ranging from environmental groups and organisations that support the homeless to the Confederation of Business and Industry and single issues group such as pro-smoking group FORREST all have access to MPs and can contribute to consultations on policy development. The fact that Britain is now a more diverse and homogeneous nation than a few decades ago also ensures that citizens from all social backgrounds can become involved in the political process, and in campaigning on individual issues.
Pluralist democracy is weakened in the UK because parliament is dominated by the executive and because non-elected bodies, particularly big business and powerful pressure groups, have considerable influence over government. Public policy is often dictated by the European Union as well, removing the power of citizens to directly exert power. A further obstacle to real pluralist democracy is that even some of the major pressure groups are not run in a democratic way. Greenpeace for example relies on supporters rather than having members with a vote on the organisation’s policies.
Ideas of pluralist democracy compete with other types of democracy in nations where democratic rule is in place. Direct democracy takes the concept of involving the people a step further in that referendums and mass meetings are regularly held to make decisions. Representative democracy is the system where voting for parliamentary representatives is the central feature of citizen involvement, whilst a totalitarian democracy exists where people can vote but only for carefully selected parties and officials.