A pressure group can be described as an organised group that does not put up candidates for election, but seeks to influence government policy or legislation. They can also be described as ‘interest groups’, ‘lobby groups’ or ‘protest groups’. Some people avoid using the term ‘pressure group’ as it can inadvertently be interpreted as meaning the groups use actual pressure to achieve their aims, which does not necessarily happen. In Britain, the number of political parties is very small, whereas the number of pressure groups runs into thousands; as the membership of political parties has fallen, that of pressure groups has increased.
Pressure Groups - Insider
Insider pressure groups have strong links with decision makers and are regularly consulted. Insider pressure groups are the groups that the government - local or national - considers to be legitimate and are, therefore, given access to decision makers. For example, insider groups might be included in regular meetings with ministers or civil servants and they might be included on lists for circulation of new government proposals. The fact that insider groups are part of the consultation process enables them to use direct methods in order to exert influence. Insider groups tend to be very powerful and long-term in terms of political influence. It is more common for sectional rather than promotional groups to be insiders, although this is by no means always the case. Insider pressure groups are similar in one respect. Generally, they abide by the ‘rules of the game’. For example, they tend to respect confidences and not to make public attacks on ministers. Insider groups can be further divided into two categories. The first is institutions within the state apparatus. This category includes organisations such as the Church of England and the police force. They can be described as insider groups because they are involved in the consultation process as a matter of course when government proposals relevant to their activities are discussed. The second category is external groups. Whilst institutions within the state apparatus are consulted in the discussion process of governmental proposals, the same is not true of external groups with insider status. Instead they are the independent organisations such as trade unions, charities or pressure groups, which are called upon by the government to provide expertise when it is needed. The type of group selected varies according to the government’s ideological orientation and other factors such as public opinion. So, the type of external groups given insider status varies from government to government.
Pressure Groups - Outsider
Outsider pressure groups have none of the advantages of insider groups. They cannot expect to be consulted during the policy-making process, nor can they expect to gain access to ministers and civil servants. Rather, they have to work outside the governmental decision making process and, therefore, have fewer opportunities to determine the direction of policy. Outsider groups adopt different strategies and can be further subdivided in to two categories. The first are outsider groups aiming for insider status. They do this by waiting for a different political climate, such as a change in government. If such a change materialises, they might immediately gain insider status. Outsider groups hoping for a change in political climate often work closely with the opposition in Parliament and, generally, their strategy is to abide by the ‘rules of the game’. Alternatively, groups seeking insider status may be new groups with little experience, resources and expertise. Decision makers might support their aims but do not consult them because they are thought to have little to offer. In addition there is a category of outsider groups that do not aim for insider status because they are ideologically opposed to the political system. By definition, such groups have no interest in gaining access to governmental decision makers.
Pressure Groups - Sectional
Sectional pressure groups seek to represent the common interests of a particular section of society. As a result, members of sectional pressure groups are directly and personally concerned with the outcome of the campaign fought by the group because they usually stand to gain professionally and/or economically. Trade unions, employers’ associations and professional bodies are all sectional groups. The National Union of Teachers (NUT), the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the British Medical Association (BMA), the Confederation of British Industry, Trades Union Congress and the Law Society are examples of sectional groups. Because sectional groups are solely concerned with a particular section of society, membership is usually restricted to, for instance, lawyers, teachers etc. Since the aim is to look after the interests of all the people in that section of society, sectional groups tend to aim to get as many eligible members as possible to join the group.
Pressure Groups - Cause
Promotional pressure groups endeavour to promote a particular cause, and for this reason are sometimes called ‘cause’ groups. Promotional pressure groups are not self-interested in that the achievement of their objectives is not necessarily of direct professional or economic benefit to the members of the group. Examples of promotional/cause pressure groups are Shelter, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Greenpeace. Because cause groups aim to promote a cause - which might potentially be supported by everybody, regardless of their profession or economic position - membership is not usually restricted. However, that does mean that cause groups have or want to have a large membership. Some cause groups have few members but a great deal of influence. For example, Liberty - a group with 5,000 members - put pressure on the Labour Party, in opposition and in government, to make the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law a priority. On the other hand, some cause groups have many members but little influence. For example, in the early 1980s over 250,000 supporters of CND marched in London on several occasions. Despite this show of popular support, CND failed to influence the government’s defence policy. Cause groups can be subdivided according to the aims they pursue. Sectional cause groups aim to protect the interests of a section of society. Attitude cause groups aim to change people’s attitudes about a particular issue or policy.
Do pressure groups add to democracy?
For some, pressure groups are a fundamental part of democracy. To others, pressure groups undermine the whole principle of democracy. Democracy is a system of government where decisions are arrived at by majoritarian principles with representatives elected at periodic elections where political equality and political freedom allow the voter an effective choice between competing candidates in a secret ballot. In the pluralist model of democracy, pressure groups play an essential role. Political parties cannot provide adequate representation for the full range of diverse interests and opinions in a modern democracy because their key function is to aggregate interests into a coherent political entity capable of governing the country. Pluralists believe that pressure groups overcome the democratic deficit that builds up as most people’s political participation is to cast a vote every five years, this leading to people having little or no influence over decisions made between elections, and minority views not being represented. Pressure groups increase participation and access to the political system, thereby enhancing the quality of democracy. They complement and supplement electoral democracy in two main ways: first, by providing an important mechanism by which citizens can influence government between elections; and second by enabling opinions to be weighed as well as counted.