This refers to the fact that in a democracy, there is a variety of viewpoints and attitudes on all the issues. Pressure groups reflect this diversity of opinion. In the UK, pressure groups compete with each other to gain the attention of the government. Some compete over the same issue, but from different standpoints. E.g. the pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) wants to see tougher government measures against tobacco, whereas groups representing smokers’ rights, such as Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking Tobacco (FOREST) want to see the government take a more relaxed line and not tax smokers too much.
Classifying pressure groups!
There are many ways in which pressure groups can be categorised:
* Promotional groups (cause groups) – These groups seek to highlight a particular issue or cause. Their members are often driven by a firm belief in the justice of an issue and seek to influence government policy on it. Examples of promotional pressure groups are:
- Fathers 4 Justice
* Sectional groups (interest groups) – These groups usually include members who share an interest. For example, they all work in the same profession. Trade unions are the most frequently mentioned example of this type of pressure group. The NUT (National Union of Teachers) is a sectional group because it seeks to promote the interests of its members, who are all teachers. Examples of sectional pressure groups are:
- BMA (British Medical Association)
Some pressure groups whether sectional or promotional, have a status that gives them access to the higher reaches of the political system. This means that they have close connections to the government. They may happen to share many of the interests of the political establishment or the party in government. For example, during the Conservative Party’s years in office between 1979 and 1997, the Institute of Directors proved to be an influential organisation, while the Labour government of Tony Blair has had a close relationship with figures in the confederation of British Industry.
Other groups do not have insider status. They are on the outside and are not usually consulted on policy issues because their aims are not in line with the political order of the time. For example, in the 1980s the trade union movement was definitely outsider in status because Margaret Thatcher and her government were against any form of organised labour. The group FOREST, which defends the rights of tobacco smokers, is currently outsider in status because it doesn’t fit in with the governments’ health policy and its desire to see a reduction in smoking.
Pressure group success!
The success of a pressure group depends on its status, public opinion, the media, finance and how well it is organised:
* Status – The status of a group is an important factor. It can be argued that the closeness that exists between some pressure groups and the political establishment, gives them an advantage and that by definition, they are likely to be more successful. However, it must be stressed that having insider status does come at a cost. To maintain this status, a group needs to conduct itself in a way that does not embarrass politicians and this inevitably gives rise to questions over the true independence of such groups.
* Public opinion – Another important factor is the degree to which pressure groups are in line with public opinion. Groups such as the NSPCC and PRSPCA stand for causes and interests that anyone would applaud publicly and consequently they find it easier to gain the support of the public, media attention and the ear of ministers.
* The media – The media are vital to pressure groups. Most groups have paid press officers and the bigger groups invest heavily in ensuring that the marketing and media relations aspects of their activities are effective.
* Size – The size of a pressure group can be an important factor. Governments are more likely to sit up and listen if a group has a million members, especially if it has the support of the public and the media. Timing can be particularly important in this respect. Clearly, a well-supported pressure group agitating in the run-up to a general election might be hard for the competing political parties to resist.
* Finance – Finance is often mentioned as an important factor when determining pressure group success. It could be argued that richer groups can afford to employ more and better workers, undertake more advertising and marketing , and raise public awareness for their cause more effectively than poorer groups. At the time of the 1975 referendum about the Uk's continued membership of the EEC, the ‘yes’ campaign was a much better financed operation and this showed in the quality (and quantity) of the publicity it achieved.
* Organisation – Often it is best organised groups, which take advantage of an issue gaining sudden prominence, that are able to achieve success. There is little doubt that in the wake of the massacre of school children in the Scottish town of Dunblane in 1996, the Snowdrop Appeal group mobilised itself effectively to take advantage of the title of anti-gun sentiment that swept the country in the months that followed.
Pressure groups and political parties:
Key differences -
1. Policies – Pressure groups usually concentrate on one policy area or a narrow field of issues. For example, Greenpeace and Friends of The Earth tend to focus their attention on the environment and issues that affect it.
2. Aims – Pressure groups, as the term indicates, aim to exert pressure on decision makers to achieve particular ends. This can be done either directly or indirectly.
3. Accountability – By seeking power, political parties become accountable because they will have to answer for the actions of those who govern in their name. Pressure groups are not accountable in the same way, and a number of pressure groups are not accountable in any way, and a number of pressure groups are not accountable.
Pressure groups and democracy:
How can pressure groups help democracy?
* They are an added form of participation – It can be argued that pressure groups complement the political process by giving ordinary people an additional mans of participation. This is particularly true in the period between elections, when voters feel that they have little influence over the government, which may have 3 or 4 years left in office.
* They are a measure of public opinion – Pressure groups act as an important weather vane of public opinion, of which the government and other political parties may wish to take notice.
* They are an added form of representation – Many groups are not fully represented by the formal political structures of the state.
* They provide expertise and advice – Some pressure groups are so well placed that when they publish reports or data the media and the government take notice. E.g. groups such as the NSPCC have been commissioned by the government to conduct research on the basis that they appear more qualified to perform the task. In this sense, pressure groups can act as an important additional source of information and advice for the government.
How do pressure groups hinder democracy?
* They are unaccountable:
One of the main criticisms of pressure groups is that they lack internal democracy. Many groups do not have accountable leaderships and there is a danger that groups claiming to represent the opinions of the many thousands of people are, in fact, run by the small group of individuals.
* Group wealth:
Some pressure groups have considerable financial resources at their disposal, for example the National Farmers’ unions. As a result they are able to employ specialist staff and engage in more expensive publicity and communication. It can be argued that this means that richer groups are likely to use greater influence within society and that this is essentially undemocratic.
Some groups behave in a way that challenges the democratic process directly. Those groups that engage in controversial, illegal or violent activities may be criticised in this respect.
A criticism that is often levelled at those groups with insider status is that much of their activity is done away from the glare of publicity. The feeling that these groups are exerting pressure on ministers behind closed doors, out of view of the public, has raised concerns that there is a lack of transparency in the way that the governments do business with certain groups and that policy outcomes may be decided in questionable circumstances.
* Link with political parties:
Some pressure groups have traditional connections with particular political parties and this could pen up governments to charge of favouritism. Many trade unions pay subscriptions to the Labour party and, in 1997, the Conservatives warned that a future Labour government would bring the unions back to the centre of the policy-making process.