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
Types of pressure groups
Pressure groups can be categorised in a few 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 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.
How do pressure groups exert influence?
Pressure groups attempt to exert influence in a number of ways. This will depend on how much access they have to government.
Ministers/civil servants: insider groups are involved in consultations with government officials. Ministers will use the knowledge and expertise of the group to formulate policy and to assess the potential impact of policy. Groups such as the CBI and BMA will often consult with ministers for these purposes.
Parliament: some groups exert influence through Parliament, through lobbying MPs, for example. Groups will write to MPs asking them to raise issues in Parliament or to initiate private members’ bills. Groups without direct access to ministers will often use this method.
Political Parties: some groups try to develop links with political parties. The link between the trade unions and the Labour Party is the best example of this. Trade unions provide substantial funding to the Labour Party, and in return, they have an influence on not only policy but also the election of the party leader, as many of the votes for leader historically came from trade union members. This influence was shown in __2010 __when Ed Miliband surprisingly defeated his brother David to become the leader. A large chunk of his votes came from trade union members.
Public opinion: outsider groups tend to try to influence public opinion in order to indirectly influence government policy. If enough public support for a particular issue is garnered, this will pressurise the government into taking action on the issue, as there may be electoral consequences if they don’t. This is seen in recent years through the organising of public protests against student tuition fees and cuts to the welfare budget. Public opinion can also be swayed by groups through appealing to certain people, for example, professionals in a certain field and journalists, who then may put pressure on the government to act.
Direct action: this includes measures such as strikes, blockades and boycotts, and is designed to disrupt the running of the country. Civil disobedience is also an element of this- breaking the law for what is seen as a justified, moral purpose. These actions are designed to pressurise the government into acting. Examples include anti-war campaigner Brian Haw protesting outside of Parliament for five years from 2001.
The courts: some groups seek to influence through legal means. These are attempts to challenge government policy on legal grounds, through the use of judicial review. Even if unsuccessful, the challenges can gain publicity for the group’s cause. For example, opponents of the proposed high-speed rail link (HS2) took their argument to the Supreme Court in 2014.
The above tactics are not just used by pressure groups in the traditional sense. Wealthy multinational corporations (and individuals), academic bodies, research groups and think tanks (groups formed to discuss and develop policy recommendations and proposals) will also attempt to influence government in similar ways.
Functions of pressure groups
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.