Role of pressure groups - negative functions

Negative functions

  • Sectional groups can be dominated by powerful groups e.g. BMA and doctors
  • Can force the government to forget about the needs of the public by protecting their members e.g NFU and Foot and Mouth

  • They contribute to an elitist society, where they prevent reform e.g. the Bar Council who are accused of slowing down legal reform

  • Can slow down necessary change and hinder business e.g. Huntingdon Life Sciences was nearly closed down by animal rights activists

  • Certain pressure groups are better organised and wealthier, as a result they get what they want e.g. supermarkets over Sunday trading, even though workers and religious groups felt it unnecessary.

  • They are unelected and many are dominated by elite groups which could impact on the rest of the population.

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Insider groups

Insider groups – These groups have direct access to government ministers and top officials and therefore build up a good professional relationship, which can help to formulate policy. There is usually a corresponding government ministry e.g. BMA and Health Department, which further strengthens the link between them. They are professionals and are therefore asked their opinion on legislation, help at times of crisis e.g. NFU during the Foot and Mouth outbreak and have professional powers e.g.. BMA can strike a doctor off the list.

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Outsider groups

Outsider groups – On the other hand these groups do not wish or are unable to be close to the government. For example CND are a long established pressure group yet the government would never seek their opinion on defence policy. The countryside alliance represents the views of the rural population and has been a strong supporter of fox hunting, yet Labour never sought their advice over this issue. Remains to be seen how they will be viewed under the new government.

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Sectional groups

Sectional groups – These groups represent the needs of certain groups of society, e.g. teachers, workers in certain industries, lawyers etc. They seek to improve the status of their members and in some instances have been successful e.g. preventing London underground being privatised, likewise the Postal Service. Big fight at the moment for public sector pensions.

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Cause groups

Cause groups – These types of groups can be split into two areas. Firstly, the local level group who are against a change in their area e.g. plane stupid set up in protest about Heathrow 3rd runway. Secondly, the group with ongoing much wider issues e.g. Occupy, Oxfam, Greenpeace & Shelter, which may take longer and has a larger impact on people’s lives. Shelter highlighted homelessness and benefitted from an advertising campaign

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Role of pressure groups - positive functions

Role of pressure groups

Positive functions

  • Enable people to participate in politics in between elections

  • Can allow people to participate in local politics e.g. cause group

  • Allow minorities to have their voice heard preventing tyranny of the majority

  • They provide professional and detailed information on topic areas

  • Give government a diverse range of opinions and views

  • They can generate new ideas in areas that politicians perhaps did not have the time to look at e.g. think tanks

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what is a pressure group?

A pressure group is a body which seeks to influence government policy without seeking office itself, usually focused on a single issue or narrow group of ideas.

Differs from a political party as they just seek to influence policy. Political parties will seek to appeal to a variety of different pressure groups in order to achieve victory.

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Do pressure groups benefit democracy?


  • Allows participation between elections

  • Provide a voice for minority groups

  • Provide objective info for government

  • Everybody can have a voice and make a difference

  • Use of publicity widens public debate


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do pressure groups hinder democracy?


  • Single issues detract from elections

  • If well organised will drown out majority

  • Info can also be biased and conflicting

  • Elites can dominate policy influence

  • Stunts are irresponsible and dangerous

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Pressure group methods


  • Local petitions, letters and lobbying of MPs, councillors, Peers to push their particular issue.

  • Using the European Union, where many pressure groups are now based and which can have major impact on UK law.

  • Advertising and use of media/internet, for example ASH and Fuel Protest groups used these methods to spread their views.

  • Peaceful marches and demonstrations, e.g. Stop the War 2003

  • Use of the courts to prevent an injustice e.g.Herceptin being refused cancer patients on the grounds of cost

  • Strikes have been used by teachers and fire-fighters recently over pay and working hours

  • Publicity stunts, such as those used by Occupy to highlight the problems caused by capitalism.

  • Hiring professional lobbyists to get your proposals ahead of your competitors and they also use MPs on their books. This is to be tightened after Margaret Moran and Geoff Hoon both agreed to lobby for money and get colleagues on board in 2010.

Some groups use illegal activities, which result in damage and violence e.g ALF

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Reasons for pressure group success

Although the Snowdrop Campaign is an obvious example it highlights how successful a pressure group can be in the face of a traumatic event. Superior lobbyists and more money enabled Devonport, not Rosyth to win the contract for maintenance and repairing of Trident submarines.

Other reasons include:

  • Support of the media, this is particularly important if sustained over a period of years

  • Proximity of an election and the potential votes an issue might win/lose

  • How united the pressure group is e.g. there are 6 teaching unions who don’t get on

  • Quality of the pressure group and its management and organization

  • Size and possible electorate impact of the membership

    Pressure groups have grown as impact of political parties has perhaps declined and we have seen a number of high profile groups forming with differing levels of protest and success.

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Pressure groups and EU

Pressure Groups and EU

Due to the changing nature of European Politics many pressure groups are based in Brussels or at least have a base their, but who do they target?

  • European Commission who draw up the proposal

  • Council of Ministers which agrees to it

  • European Parliament which can debate the issue and question the commission

  • European Court of Justice if required

    The EU sees pressure groups as important to the overall decision making process and have become institutionalized, unlike in the UK

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social class

Party alignment based upon class has been a traditional predictor of a person’s voter behaviour. However this has declined over the past 40 years and we can see evidence of class dealignment. A, B & C1 used to vote Conservative. C2, D & E used to vote Labour, however no longer the case.

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party identification

The idea that children identify with a political party and will stick to that party for the rest of their lives. Although they may vote for another party in exceptional circumstances but predominantly stay loyal. This was an important factor post WW2 but has declined significantly.

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Gender & age

Women have traditionally voted for Conservatives and as people get older they become more conservative. Younger people tend to more idealistic objectives.

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Region – Traditionally there has been a north/south divide, with Labour dominating in the north, primarily urban areas and the Conservatives in the south in rural areas. Although at 2010 election the most obvious difference is the Conservative superiority in England and lack of seats in Scotland and Wales.

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rational choice

This is a model which ignores any of the factors above. Instead the voter bases their decision upon a rational decision after looking at the manifestos, leaders and the record of the parties.

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issue voting

Looking at the different policies you vote positively for ideas you support or against ideas you hate. Key areas are economy, health and education.

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party competence

For example the Conservatives were previously trusted with the economy, until October 1992 and Black Wednesday. After this Labour were able to demonstrate their competence in this important area until 2008

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Elections have become more presidentialised and as such leaders are under increasing scrutiny. Their personality can have a huge impact on how people vote, e.g. Gordon Brown’s “bigoted” woman comment on Gillian Duffy. Of course this election has increased the scrutiny with the PM debates.

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voting context model

Voters are trying to put the election into context and this can be seen in the following areas.

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This can have an effect, particularly with the new media. Newspapers have traditionally held sway but this is changing with 24 hour news channels, internet and social networking sites e.g. Facebook and ensuring people registered to vote.

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impact on voter turnout

A low turnout figure does undermine the legitimacy of the winning party and so it is imperative that it is as high as possible.

Turnout at 2010 was 65.1%

Turnout has dropped sharply since 1997, particularly in the 18-24 category and there are a number of reasons why:

  • Social mobility has broken the community ties that young people feel

  • Lack of party identification means that people don’t feel an association with a party

  • The result was too predictable therefore there is little point in voting

  • People are joining pressure groups as they are more effective

  • Parties are too similar on policy

  • Election campaign goes on for too long and people get bored

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opinion polls

It is open to debate as to how much influence opinion polls have but in France they ban them in the run up to elections because they feel it can have a detrimental effect on the outcome. Others believe there is little impact but there can sometimes be a bandwagon effect where a party gets ahead in the polls and people just flock to them because they want to be associated with winning.

However polls are generally accurate (apart from in 1992) and predicted the hung parliament we have today before the election and in the exit poll.

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tactical voting

This has been a consistent part of voting for some time, where you vote for a party you don’t support to keep out a party you really dislike. Previously it has been the Conservatives who have been attacked through tactical voting and this happened clearly in 1997 & 2001. It has happened less so at the last two elections because of Labour’s unpopular war in Iraq and the changing nature of the Conservative Party.

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influence of campaigns

Very rarely a decisive factor, the 3 week period in the run up to the election sees the main parties travelling across the country to outline their message, spending thousands of pounds as they go. Conservative spent significantly more in 2010 yet failed to win outright, so not always a real influence.

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GE 2010

  • First use of TV debates

  • Feeling that it would be an election controlled by the Social Media

  • Gordon Brown deeply unpopular

  • David Cameron popular but not convincing

  • Nick Clegg the real surprise with strong showing on TV

  • Election campaign ignited due to bigoted woman comment by Brown

  • Economy top issue due to the cuts

  • Labour lost their competency in this area

  • Immigration Law & Order became more important issue that all sides had to tackle

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GE 2015 - ELectoral systems

  • Quick majority unlike 2015
  • Constituency link - 49% have a majority mandate
  • Strong, stable government
  • Voter choice - SNP, Greens, Lib Dems, UKIP
  • Turnout - 66% - rise from 2001 59%, norm 75%
  • Squeezed out extemists - BNP vote collapsed
  • Diversity - delivered the most socially diverse parliament in UK history
  • 2015 still highlighted consisted weaknesses with FPTP
  • Cons majority govt. with 37% share of the vote
  • UKIP - 4 million votes = 1 seat
  •  In Scotland Labour got 24% of the vote but only 1 seat
  • 51% of MPs elected with a minority mandate
  • Safe seats/Electoral Deserts
  • 66% still well below the historical norm for the UK
  • potential for back bench rebellions - not strong govt.
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GE 2015 - Referendums

  • EU in-out referndum due to conservative manifesto promises
  • Referendum on additional tax raising powers for Welsh Assemly
  • SNP success could trigger another referendum in Scotland
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GE 2015 - voting behaviour: rational choice, domin

  • confirmed the volatility of much of the UK electorate
  • dealignment - collapse of Lib Dem vote - Rise of UKIP, Greens, SNP
  • valence issues
  • salient issues
  • V.O Key's theory of retrospective voting
  • party image - labour still blamed for the recession
  • leadership issue - the Miliband factor
  • tactical voting - Nick Clegg holding onto Sheffield Hallam: Tories voting lib dem to keep labour out
  • Media largely supportive of Conservatives
  • Scottish Sun issue - SNP in scotland, Tory in england
  • Opinion Polls - fear of labour winning
  • Unions - Writting to its members - often anti-conservaives
  • clear evidence of partisan alignment connected to sociological factors
  • 26% of voters consistently knew who they would vote for between 2010-15.
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GE 2015 - Pressure Groups

  • Election of a Conservative majority government for first time since 1992 - has seen a return of previous patterns of pressure group activity
  • Sectional Groups - Unions e.g. public sector pay strikes, Junior Doctors
  • Cause groups - particularly environmental, HS2, Anti-Fracking, Plane Stupid.
  • Anti-Austerity Protests - more likely under new right governments
  • Spike in membership for CND (campaign for nucular disarnent.
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General Election

Previously the PM could call an election whenever he/she wanted, as long as it occurred within 5 years of previous election. Now the situation is different with fixed term elections of every 5 years, therefore next election will be May 2015. Previously only thing that delayed an election was war e.g. 1915 & 1940.

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These elections are for a new MP in a constituency when the previous representative stands down or dies. Good barometer of public opinion towards the government. Recent examples in 2008 Crewe & Nantwich and 2009 Norwich North; both saw Conservative victories in previously Labour seats.

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local elections

Fixed term elections every 4 years. Similar to general elections in terms of campaign but turnout is lower, usually around 30% compared to roughly 60-65% for a general election.

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European Parliament Elections

UK sends 72 MEPs to represent 12 regions. Like local elections the turnout is usually around 30-35% but the system is different, it is a proportional system called a closed list system (more later).

European election results 2009 / Turnout – 34%

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Scottish Parliament elections

Different system again (more later), voter has two votes, one for candidate one for party. There are 129 MSPs; 73 constituency MSPs and 56 regional MSPs, where there are 8 regions each containing 7 representatives. These regional MSPs are elected on a PR system.

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FPTP disadvantages


  • Unfair as many times the winner doesn’t gain a majority
  • Governments usually gain a minority of support e.g. Blair in 2005 won with only 36% vote with a turnout of 61%
  • Can lead to safe seats e.g. Labour strongholds in Northern England
  • Wasted votes as many people don’t support the winner
  • Favours the big 2 parties, not the Lib Dems as there vote is spread evenly across UK; means there are really only 2 alternatives
  • Winner’s bonus due to the disproportionality of the votes and seats e.g. Labour in 2005 with 36% vote got 356 seats (55%)
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FPTP advantages

First Past the Post System – is known as a plurality system but goes by FPTP more often. There are 650 constituencies, each one returning a single MP, they need one more than second lace to win. Must pay a £500 deposit to stand and lose it if they get less than 5% vote.


  • Easy to understand
  • Clear result
  • Usually gives a clear majority for the winner (except 1931,1974 & 2010); means they avoid coalition governments which are seen as slow and fragile
  • Strong link between MP and constituents
  • Public seem happy with it
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Proportional Systems – based upon multi-member con


List system – Can be used either closed or open but it ensures broad proportionality. Closed list (European elections) means you vote for a party and then the corresponding numbers of MPs are picked from a list put forward by the party. Can lead to candidates who toe the party line being at the top of lists

Single Transferrable Vote – Used in Northern Irish Assembly and Scottish Council elections. Voters rank candidates in order of preference and get more than one candidate per party to ensure greater choice. A pre-arranged level needs to be achieved by a candidate if they want to be elected, this is found using the droop quota. Voters can vote for a candidate 

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Proportional Systems – based upon multi-member con


  • No wasted votes like in FPTP
  • It eradicates the idea of safe seats and tactical voting
  • Government will represent the votes of the majority even if it is a coalition
  • Means that a few marginal seats won’t sway the result
  • Benefits parties who have consistent nationwide support but not concentrated


  • Breaks the link between MP and constituents
  • Could lead to coalition government, which are slow and unstable
  • Accountability for decision making may be lost, who do you blame!
  • Might be behind the scenes deals which the public would be unaware of
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Majoritarian Systems – based on single-member cons

Second Ballot – Used in France. If someone gets 50%+ then they win; if not the rest drop out leaving the stronger candidates for a second vote. The idea is that eventually someone wins

Supplementary vote –

Used in London Mayoral election. Voters have to pick their top 2 candidates; if someone gets 50%+ they win. If not the top 2 are left and the other preferences are redistributed to, in theory, give an outright majority to one of them. Also used in the Police Commissioners Election 2012.

Alternative vote – Proposed system for general elections, similar to SV but you can rank all the candidates. If no-one gets 50%+ then the bottom candidate is removed and their preferences re-distributed; this continues until there is a winner (used in Labour leadership elections and proposed in referendum may 2011

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Majoritarian Systems – based on single-member cons


  • Link is maintained between MP and constituents
  • Winner eventually gets 50%+
  • Tends to produce strong governments with working majorities
  • It is easy to understand, with no wasted votes


  • Can lead to deals between parties e.g. Labour telling their supporters to put Lib Dems 2nd and vice versa to keep out Tories
  • They tend to favour centre parties as they will be many people’s second choice
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Referendums – from Devolution to future promises

Northern Ireland 1973 – Huge yes vote regarding the maintenance of N. Ireland in the UK but some people abstained (Sinn Fein); not binding and impact lessened.

EU Membership 1975 – Vote as to whether UK should remain in EU, voted strongly to remain, issues over the wording of the questions and funding of campaign.

Europe – Conservatives have promised future referendums on this issue, although there are no plans to join the Euro currency in this parliament.

AV 2011 – Over the continuation of FPTP or a replacement in the form of Alternative Vote. Part of the coalition agreement between Lib Dems and Conservatives resulted in a defeat for the Yes campaign.


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Referendums – from Devolution to future promises


  • Great form of direct democracy
  • Ask a simple question to a matter of constitutional importance
  • Give government great levels of consent over controversial issues
  • Encourage participation in politics but disadvantages
  • Goes against our system of representative democracy
  • Governments can only hold them when they are certain of result
  • Governments get to choose the wording of the question
  • Impact of media and funding can affect the result
  • Some issues are too complex for a simple yes/no question
  • Result might force a government to agree to something it does not believe in
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