Pressure Groups

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Definition of a pressure group

An assocation that may be formal or informal, whose purpose is to further the interests of a sepcific section of society or to promote a particular cause by influencing government, the public or both.

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Features of a pressure group

  • Pressure groups are trying to influence decisions. (Don't expect to make the decisions themsleves)
  • They may seek to influence not just the decisions themsleves but also the details of those decisions and even their implementation.
  • Most pressure groups operate on a relatively narrow rang of issues
  • They operate on different levels of government
    • Policy bodies, ministers and civil servants.
    • The Westminster Parliament
    • The Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irealand and London governments
    • Local government
    • EU
  • Pressure groups sometimes operate in the law courts
    • Nov 2009 - supreme court. Office of Fair trading versus Barclays Bank
    • March 2010 -High court. Hillingdon vs Secratory of state for transport
    • Feb 2012- supreme court. Ravat vs Haliburton
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Functions of pressure groups

  • Key part in governing process. Their involvement at all stages of the policy and decision making process helps to inform government itself.
  • Occasionally they may help individual MPs or peers who are trying to promote private members' legislation.
  •  They have a representative function Either they represent specific sections of the public or they cleaim to represent the best interests.
  • Pressure groups help to educte and inform the public about politically important issues.
  • They provide a less intensive but more relevant opportunity for political participatio than political parties. 
  • Pressure groups often scrutinise legislative and policy propsals (suggesting how they may be imporoved and amended.
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Functions of pressure groups (2)

  • Tension release. There are times when significant sections of society feel very strongly about a particular issue
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Distinction between pressure groups and parties


  • Parties are seeking to achieve power, either as governing party or as part of a governing coaltion.
  • Parties must accept responsibilty fro all politics that they propose. Governments must be accountable
  • Parties have to adopt policies across the full range of government responsibilities
  • Parties have to behave in a responsible way becasue they are accountable and expect to seek election.

Pressure groups

  • They don't seek governmental power. If they do they must turn themsleves into political parties (UKIP)
  • Pressure groups don't have to held accountable.
  • Pressure groups have narrow concerns, often they campaigns on a single issues.
  • Some pressure groups offer candidates for election to parliament. 
  • They often break the law or undertake acts of civil disobedience.
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Blurring the distinctions between parties and pres


  • Some single issue parties look very like pressure groups (UKIP) was an anti-europe pressure group. Green Party was once little more than an environmetal campaign organisation. BNP is essentially an anti-immigration organisation.

Pressure Groups

  • Some pressure groups do put up candidates for election even though they aren't seeking power. Anti-abortion groups, presented candidates in general elections to publicise their cause.
  • Some pressure groups are very closely assciated with parties, so it can be difficult to distinguish them. 
  • Many trade union have very close links with the Labour Party.
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Classification of Pressure groups

Sectional or interest groups

  • Those that represent a specific section of section of society. They are self-interested and are only concerned with promoting the best interests of their members

Cause, issue or promotional groups

  • They don't have a specific section of the community to represent. They claim to be serving the interests of the whole community. They have one issue or a cluster of issues that they are seeking to promote. They don't have a specific membership, or at most, only have a small group of activists.

Dual-function groups

  • These can be sectional and both cause-based. E.g. The Countryside Alliance represents people who live in rural areas, but also campaigns for a better quality of life in the countryside. 
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Insider Groups

Insider Groups

  • Pressure groups that operate inside the political system through ministers, MPs, peers and official committees. They are regularly consulted by government.
  • An insider pressure group is one that has succeededin becoming a part of the decision-making process itself. They are 'inside' the process, hoping to influence.
  • They take part in the development of policy and so can hope to mould it to their own benefit
  • They may also be able to prevent unfavourable legislation at an early stage.
  • There are groups that move from being insiders to outsiders and back. E.g. Conservative Government don't consult Liberty, the human rights pressure group, LIB Dems viewed them as insider
  • They may be consulted regularly by government bodies. This is because they provide useful info and may be also to express the views of their members.
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Insider Groups (2)

  • Some pressure groups have permanent seats on government policy committees and agencies. These groups find themselves at the centre of the decision-making process. E.g. National Farmers' Union (NFU). It is advantageous to government that all agricultural policy should be considered by represenatives of the farming community.
  • Some groups are set up by government itself and may be funded from taxpayers' money. Special kind of insiders. E.g. The Commission for equality and Human Rights (CEHR), was set up specifically to advise government on matters of rights, racial discrimination and equality of opportunity 
  • Select committees in the HOC investigate the work of government departments and produce reports of policy proposals.
  • Some groups need to achieve insider status at local, regional and European levels.
  • EU insider groups typically trade unions and business employers' organisation, have been able to attach themsleves to the various sections of the European Commission.
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Outsider Groups

  • Unlike Insider groups, outsdiers have no special links with government but seek to influence decision makers by mobilising public opinion.
  • An outsider if it chooses to remain outside the government process. E.g. Greenpeace
  • An outsider simple hasn't been invited into the government process. These are aspiring insiders.
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New social movements (NSM)

1980s saw the rise of a new kind of political action group that did not fit any of the existing pressure group classifications. These are seen as new social movements (NSM)

NSMs are broadly based, fairly informal movements that emerge, sometimes very rapidly , around a particular issues.

They are characterised by the organistion of mass demonstrations and media campaigns, designed to to create maximum publicity and to put political pressure upon decision makers.

First modern examples of NSM was the Anti-Poll Tax Fderation of the late 1980s. This arose out of widespread discontent about flat-rate tax per head.

In 2000 sharp rises in fuel prices lead to the formation of the People's Fuel Lobby, an alliance of farmers, motorists, road hauliers and other interested parties.

2007 Downing Street began to accept internet petitions on a variety of issues. E.g. Association of British Drivers, was a small organistation now had 1.8 million signatures.

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Main Characteristics of NSM

  • They appear on the political scene very rapidly
  • They are mass movements with many thousands of instant followers
  • They are concerned with a narrow range of issues or one single issue
  • They are often temporary, especially when they achieve some success
  • Their methods are striking and flamboyant, sometimes including acts of civil disobedience.
  • They have loose, informal organisations
  • Their followers tend to have an intense attachment to the issues in question.
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Pluralist Democracy

Pluralism - A desription of a political system where a wide range of beliefs, ideologies and ideas  is tolerated and allowed to flourish. It also implies a system where power is widely dispersed and not concentrated in a few hands.

Britian enjoys a free and active civil society. It is common to refer to the political culture in the UK as being one of Pluralism.

Until the 1970s politics in the UK was largely based upon social class and the two-party system.

Pluralist Democracy - A democratic system where the demands and interests of many different groups in society are recognised and taken into consideration on policy making.

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Democratic features of pressure groups


  • Groups offer a considerable amount of info to the people. They are independent of government, so we are recieving important messages from which we can make sound judgements. E.g. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) informs the public about the daners of smoking.


  • Whether we take part or not pressure groups represent our interests to those who govern.
  • In almost all activites there is probably a group that is seeking to secure favourable legislation or decisions and to avoid unfavourable ones. E.g. The Automobile Association (AA) represents the interests of motorists.


  • Passive citizenry is often seen as a danger to democracy. Without this government can become like a dictatorship. E.g. 38 degrees make it simple for people to participate in a wide variety of campaigns, local and national.
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Democratic features of pressure groups (2)

Minority Interests

  • Pressure groups ensure that all of us are represented (stops tyranny of the majority) E.g. Multiple Sclerosis Society try to protect the intersts of those suffering particular diseases.

The Dispersal of power (pluralism)

  • The conventional view of pressure groups is that they help to spread power more widely. 
  • Government and parties concentrate power in the hands of leadership. Pressure groups can empower their wider members. E.g. Wide membership groups like Age UK or unions representing public service workers.
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Undemocratic features of pressure groups

Disproportionate influence

  • Some groups wield more influence than their place in society warrants.


  • Some groups have influence simply beacuse they have large financial resources available to them. This may be to the detriment of poorer groups that might have a stronger case.


  • Sheer weight of numbers in supporters. The Countryside Alliance put an estimated 300,000 sympathisers on the streets in 2003 to protest about the ban on hunting with dogs.

Digitalised Democracy

  • Info spread may be false. It is easy for individuals and groups to spread misinformation.
  • Info that a cause is widespread, reflection of internet users rather than true supporters.
  • Excessive influence from the mass population may not be well informed
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Undemocratic features of pressure groups (2)

Insiders have influence at the expense of outsiders 

Some groups' leaderships may not represent accurately the views of their members i.e. they are undemocratic internally.

Pressure groups cannot be made democratically accountable for what they do and propose.

Wealthy, influential groups may give influence to elites rather than their wider memberships.

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Methods of pressure groups


  • The process of influencing public and governmental policy 

Parliamentary Methods

  • Some pressure groups pay retaining fees to MPs in return for which they will raise relevant issues as much as possible in the House.
  • HOL has become more significant in growth of pressure groups. Lords activity includes:
    • March 2010, equality act. Bill was intended to prevetn discrimination against groups such as woman, the disabled, members of ethnic minority and gay people. 
    • 2012 health and socail care act, designed to protect groups such as patients and health service employees.


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Methods of Pressure groups (2)

Direct action

  • Can involve stunts and provocativ action to draw attention to an issues
    • Father4Justice, dressed as super heroes and placed themsleves in posititions like Buckingham Palace. (to attract media attention)
    • Peter Tatchell, Gay rights, an art of political stunts ("protest as performance")
  • Direct action has incresed in recent years, beacuse it works.
  • Government are forced to respond to powerful demonstrations of feeling

Mobilising Public opinion

  • 2005 election campaign, old age pensioners vote was critical. Elderly vote larger in numbers than youth. Politicians forced to woo "grey vote". Age UK knew they could influence policy  in the run up to the election. 
  • By demonstarting that this particular groups of voters was interested, they were able to force concessions from aspiring party leaders. 
  • Smaller groups have attempted to publicise their concerns forcefully enough to bring public opinion round to their cause. 
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Why some groups are more successful than others

ASH has successfully campaigned for a ban on tobacco advertising and on smoking in public places.

Pressure groups often seek to stop certain actions taking place. 


  • A groups belief or aspiration are close to those of the government, success is very likely. 
  • Business groups did well under the Conservative reign and achieved success under the New Labour after 1997
  • Rights campaigners like Liberty and Unlock Democracy, discovered resistance to their demands from the recent government. (introduces more authoritarian)


  • Being wealthy doesn't mean success
  • Electoral Commission in 2011, all political parties recieved donations amounting to £34.6million
  • Industries like farming, oil, tobacco... spend lots of money on on lobbying behind the scenes.
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Why are some groups more successful than others (2


  • Age UK, Friends of the earth have (200,000 members) 
  • Countryside alliance (100,000)
  • All claim influence trhough the weight of public opinion
  • Size often translates itself into finance and also voting power
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Why are some groups more successful than others (3


  • The ability of a group to organise successful demonstartions, to raise public profile and to persuade its members to take visible action can replace both size and finance as factors in success

Opposition groups

  • Groups are often faced with adversaries who are arguing the opposite. 
  • This then becomes a battle of wills and the result is uncertain. 
  • Some are lucky enough to have no serious opposition.
    • ASH vs Tobacco industry
    • The private motoring lobby vs Environmentalists and public transport campaigners.
    • The airline industry vs plane stupid
    • Farming industry vs Animal welfare groups
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Why are some groups more successful than others (4

Insider status

  • Insiders can be better off but aren't always.
  • Some groups have on going contact with government and Parliament

Celebrity involvenment

  • Most groups attempt to gain endorsements from celebrities
  • 2009, Joanna Lumley triamphed in her campaign on behalf of Gurkhas in the UK
  • Elton John - Gay rights
  • Jamie Oliver - healthier food in schools.
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Definition of a Section and Promotional group

Sectional Group 

A pressure groups that represents a specific section of society such as a trade union or an employer's association. Also known as an interest.

Promotional Group 

A pressure group that seeks tp promote a cause rather that the interests of its own memebers. Also known as a cause group or an issue group.

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Changing nature/activities of pressure groups


  • Memberships of parties has fallen as have voting turnouts.
  • Large numbers of non-voters are disullusioned.  

Access Points

  • Pressure groups now have more 'access points' to the decision-making institutions. 
  • Used to be that pressure groups concentrate the vast majority of their efforts on government ministers, civil servants and their advisers, or on Parliament.
  • Decsions making in Britian has tended to become spread over a much wider range of instituation. This process has four facets.
    • The importance of the EU
    • Devolution of power to national regions
    • The growth of policy-making bodies outside the traitional party system]mobilisation of public opinion via the media and/ or the internet.
    • The increasing importance of the courts as a result of the passage of the Human rights act.
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Changing nature/activities of pressure groups (2)


  • Growing jurisdiction of the EU
  • The decisions that are made in the Union have forced pressure groups to adopt  new methods.
    • Switched many of their activites to the EC, the committee of the Regions, the Socail and Economic Committee.
    • The European Parliament is becomign more influential.
    • Lobby groups have ent ncreasing numbers of representavites to Parliament and its committees. 
    • 2010, 4,400 accredited (permited to operate freely) lobbyists attached to the European Parliament.


  • Power has been devolved to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irealand.
  • Main Policy areas that have been devolved are health, education, transport, industrial development, agriculture and local government services.
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Changing nature/activities of pressure groups (3)

Extra-party institutions 

  • There is now a wide range of external think tanks, policy units, private advisers and working parties.
  • Pressure groups have a vital interest in becoming onvolved in the early stagrs of policy consideration.
  • Main way they achieve this is by employing proffesional lobbyists. They undertake the critical task of identifying the key decision makers, securing contacts with them and ensuring that the info that a pressure group wishes to dissemiate finds the appropriate targets. 

Human Rights Act

  • Act passed in 1998 and brought the European Convention on Human rights into british law in 2000. 
  • Was to introduce a wide range of rights, many of which range of rights, many of which were designed to protect minority interests.
  • Many pressure and interest groups represent such minorities.
  • The act provides many new opportunittes for them to assert their interests.
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Changing nature/activities of pressure groups (4)

Direct Action

  • Insider pressure groups were seen to have a distinct advantgae in gaining the attention of policy and decsion makers over outsider groups. 
  • They have direct access and were generally felt to be more responsible in their demands.
  • Many groups now feel they can exert more pressure on government.

Digital Democracy

  • The downing street e-petions site gives direct acces to the entre of power
  • Other e-petitions can put pressure on Mps to debate important issues
  • It is possbile to initiate and organise campaigns quickly and efficiently
  • Social, community and campain networks can be built up to reach all interested parties
  • Virtually all pressure groups, both interest groups and promotional groups, insiders and outsiders use the internet to reinforce their activities.
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