A pressure group is an organised group of people that aims to influence the policies or actions of government.
Pressure groups have three key features:
- They seek to exert influence from outside, meaning they don’t try to win political power in the same way as a party
- Typically have a ‘narrow issue’ focus, for example, environmental issues, or (even more specific) opposing the building of an airport runway. Parties have much more of a broad focus in many policy areas
- Members are united by a shared belief or common set of interests. Parties, on the other hand, are united by, broadly, an ideological viewpoint
Functions of a pressure group
Pressure groups provide a form of representation in the UK political system- they represent the interests of a particular group of people or represent the views on a particular issue. They are also a method of political participation. 40-50% of the UK population is a member of at least one pressure group. There have been some concerns raised however that many people join a group without actually actively participating much- this is known as the ‘chequebook group’ idea. Pressure groups also educate the public through raising awareness of the issues they campaign on. Finally, pressure groups are sometimes involved in policy formulation and implementation, through being insider groups. For example, the National Farmers’ Union works with the Department for Rural Affairs to implement policies relating to farming and agriculture.
Pressure groups can be categorised in a few different ways, and can belong to more than one ‘category’. They could be:
Interest groups: these are also known as sectional groups, because they represent a certain ‘section’ of society, for example, trade unions. Membership is linked to a particular occupation or part of society. Examples are the National Union of Teachers, the Confederation of British Industry, and the British Medical Association.
Cause groups: these are also known as promotional groups, because they seek to promote a particular cause, for example, charities and environmental groups. Anyone can join these groups, unlike sectional groups. Examples are Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the Electoral Reform Society.
Social movements: similar to a cause group, but lacking a formal structure. They are usually politically radical and aim to achieve a single objective.
Insider groups: these are groups regularly consulted by the government, with regular access to government ministers. The CBI is an example of this. Insider groups can be a high or low profile. These groups tend to have influence because their aims are broadly in line with the government’s views. This is good due to the close access the groups have to government, but it can restrict the types of activities they would adopt.
__Outsider groups: __these are groups with no links or access to government. They have to use other ways to have an impact, for example using the media or trying to influence public opinion. Examples include groups such as the Animal Liberation Front. Such groups may purposefully choose to be outsiders (due to their radicalism) or simply be denied access to government. The status of being an insider or outsider is more of a sliding scale than a binary classification. Outsider groups are often more well-known than insiders, due to the attention-grabbing tactics they use.