Nature and Functions of Pressure Groups
- A pressure group is an association that may be formal or informal whose purpose is to further the interests of a specific section of society or to promote a particular cause.
- They have many functions including: they play a key part in the governing process through their involvement at all stages of the policy and decision making process. They inform the government and improve the quality of policy making.
- They have a representative function either of the whole public or a section of society.
- They help to educate and inform the public about politically important issues, the provide a less intensive but more relevant opportunity for political participation. Finally, they provide certain sections of society who feel strongly about a certain issue with a "tension release".
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Distinction between pressure groups and parties
- Parties seek governmental power, pressure groups do no seek power.
- Parties adopt policies across a full range of governmental responsibility, pressure groups usually have a narrow range of issues.
- Parties have to be accountable for their policies, pressure groups do not.
- Parties must behave in a responsible way, pressure groups may act illegally or promote civil disobedience.
- However, there are some similarities. These include: both may put up candidates for elections and pressure groups can convert themselves into political parties.
- Some pressure groups such as trade unions like UNISON develop a wide range of policies.
- Pressure groups should be accountable to their own members.
- Some pressure groups work so closely with parties and governments that it is hard to distinguish between their roles.
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Classification of pressure groups
- A sectional group is a pressure group that represents a specific section of society such as a trade union, also known as an interest group.
- A promotional group is a pressure group which seeks to promote a cause rather than the interests of its own members e.g. greenpeace.
- There are two major types of pressure groups. An insider pressure group is a pressure group which operate within the political system through contacts with ministers, MPs and peers. They are regularly consulted by government.
- They are regularly consulted by governmental bodies because they can provide useful information and may be able to express the views of their members. An example may be the Countryside Alliance.
- Some insider pressure groups have permanent seats on policy committees like the NFU.
- There are groups which have been set up by the government and may be funded by the tax payers money e.g. the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR).
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- Select committees often call insider pressure groups as witnesses to certain issues in the process of making governmental policy.
- They operate on a local, regional and European scale.
- An outsider pressure group does not have any special links within government but seek to influence decision makers by mobilising public opinion.
- New social movements have often been described as outsider pressure groups and share similar characteristics: appearing very quickly on the political scene, they are mass movements with many thousands of followers in some instances, they are often temporary after success.
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Pressure Groups and Democracy
- Democratic features of pressure groups are: Education- groups offer a considerable amount of information to people and as they are independent from the government, this information can be sound. We can combine various information to make a good judgement of something, therefore they educate and inform us.
- Representation- pressure groups represent our interests to those who govern. In virtually all our activities, there is a pressure group who seek to secure favourable legislation. Even if we are not part of a pressure group we are still being passively represented.
- Participation- it is important that pressure groups offer us the opportunity to participate in political issues, as it prevents dictatorship. It ensures that the government remains accountable to the people. With membership of political parties, pressure groups offer the perfect opportunity for political participation.
- Minority interests- they ensure that all of us in small or large groups are taken account of. If this does not occur there is a danger of democracy being a rule of majority. It is important for pressure groups to stop party rule turning into tyranny.
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- There are undemocratic features of pressure groups however: Disproportionate influence- some groups wield more power than their relative importance might suggest. This is a problem in sectional groups. The farming community for instance accounts for a tiny proportion of the total population but they are responsible for much of our food supply and our countryside.
- Finance- some groups have access to more funds than other groups. In sectional groups involved with businesses it is likely that they will be able to access money and better methods than charities who rely on leaflets and posters.
- Size- the amount of people in a pressure group is also undemocratic. The Countryside Alliances ban on hunting and the protest on the Iraq war simply forces governments to pass legislation.
- Other factors- insider status, sudden wave of public emotion, unrepresentative leaders.
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Methods of pressure Groups
- Insider Pressure Groups: Lobbying- this is a method which is done behind closed doors. Committees and commissions meet to develop policy, ministers consult relevant pressure groups and MPs and peers used pressure groups as a source of information in helping them scrutinise legislation.
- Parliamentary Methods- some groups pay retaining fees to MPs in return for them raising relevant issues in Parliament. All large pressure groups like Greenpeace have a number of MPs who represent them in Parliament. House of Lords has also become significant, in recent times the Lords has become an amending chamber. On issues like the fox hunting ban the peers have had backing from relevant pressure groups.
- Outsider Pressure Groups: Direct Action- this occurs when pressure groups seek to obtain the maximum amount of publicity possible. Mass demonstrations are examples of this method. Can also involve stunts and law breaking/civil disobedience.
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- Mobilising Public Opinion- if pressure groups can demonstrate to political leaders that the issue they support commands wide spread support from the people, the leaders are forced to listen. An example may be in 2005, when the old age pensioner vote was critical and Help the Aged and Age Concern knew it would be easier for them to influence policy.
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Why are some pressure groups more successful than others?
- Philosophy- when a groups beliefs are close to those of government then there is a higher chance of success. For an example, the trade unions struggled under the Conservatives up to 1997. However, under New Labour they have been highly favoured. Liberty and Charter 88 have struggled under Labour through their more authoritarian stance on law and order.
- Finance- being a wealthy pressure group doesn't mean instant success, however it does help. Those groups who have plenty of money will find it easier to mount bigger campaigns and may use methods like lobbying and parliamentary methods. However, big money pressure groups like UNISON can't influence government policy if the government is against them.
- Size- large pressure groups like the RSPB and the Countryside Alliance all claim influence through the weight of public opinion. The AA and RAC are examples of how the motoring industry has leverage in government. Size often translates into finance and also voting power e.g. Help the Aged. Trade unions like AMACUS however, also limit the importance of size.
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- Organisation- the ability of a group to organise itself is also extremely important in terms of raising their public profile. If they are organised they will be able to mount good campaigns and also gain media attention. It will also help in different methods of campaigning like through websites like facebook and twitter.
- Opposition groups- if a pressure group is faced with another group who is arguing the opposite case, it becomes a battle. When a group isn't faced with this opposition, success is higher. An example may be the Countryside Alliance being opposed by the anti-hunting lobby and ASH opposed by the tobacco industry.
- Insider Status- although not a definite in terms of a group being more successful, it is easy to say that a group which enjoys ongoing contact with government has an overall advantage.
- Celebrity Involvement- most groups attempt to gain endorsements from celebrities and indeed some celebrities form their own pressure groups. Celebrity involvement can replace huge amounts of finance and public support in terms of influence. Examples include, Jamie Oliver and his healthy schools programme and Joanna Lumley and the Gurkha's
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