A pressure group is an organisation that seeks to influence the government, usually to change the law in some way.
Unlike parties, pressure groups don't seek to win political office themselves, they only want to exert influence on those already in power. Pressure groups don't have an official position in the British Constitution, but it's widely recognised that they play a useful part in the democratic process. They bring citizens together to further their shared interests by interacting with the government, and this is seen as a healthy activity for democracy. Pressure groups are the most visible face of civil society, that part of society that is involved in politics in some way but it's not part of the state or a political party.
As we will see in the chapter on Parliament, the process of making a law includes various opportunities for pressure groups to have their say, a clear sign that politicians in general can see the value of allowing voices from outside Parliament to have a role in legislating.
Most pressure groups are membership organisations, people pay a membership fee to join the group. The size of a group's membership can have a big effect on how effective it is. Ministers will be far from likely to listen to a pressure group that has a large number of supporters because these supporters will usually also be voters.
The hallways of the Houses of Parliament are often called lobbies. People who wished to speak with an MP would often wait here for them to come past and so that practice of attempting to speak with and influence the government has become known as lobbying.
Classification of pressure groups. There are many different types of pressure groups.
Sectional pressure groups represent a section of society.
Examples includeL The British Medical Association, which represents doctors. The Muslim Council of Britain, represents Muslims. The Fawcett Society campaign for women's rights and defends their interests.
Clearly then, there are a wide range of sectional groups, and members of some groups all have a job in common, others a region and others a gender. Sectional groups mainly exist to defend the interests of their members.
The BMA often speaks out when the government tries to change working conditions for doctors. Trade unions can be seen as sectional groups too, because they campaign for the interests of the workers in their union.
Members of a casual pressure groups don't have a particular interest of their own in common. Instead, they may come from totally different backgrounds and are united only by their desire to see a particular change in the law.
Migration Watch, this group wants the government to place huge limits on immigration so that far fewer people are allowed to come and live in the UK from overseas. Society for the Protection of Unborn Child, the SPUC wants abortion to be made illegal.
Unlike sectional groups, it's easy to see that these groups need not necessarily exist permanently. If immigration and abortion were banned, neither of the above examples would have much reason to continue existing. Doctors, Muslims and women, however, will continue to have interests that could be threatened until a truly egalitarian society is actually achieved and so sectional groups are usually permanent. Most casual groups don't campaign for a single issue or law change instead, they'll campaign on a range of issues within a given field.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, usually have a number of different campaigns at any one time. They may be lobbying the EU to tighten laws on transporting animals at the same time as asking the British government to provide more money for animal health research. RSPCA, don't confine itself trying to influence the government, speak directly. Just as politicians realise pressure group supporters are also voters, businesses are aware that they're also customers and consumers. Countryside Alliance, started in 1997, prevent a change in the law, Tony Blair had signalled he'd be sympathetic to ban on hunting foxes without hounds. Failed in 2004, now known as promoting the interests of rural people and campaigns, from casual to sectional.
Some pressure groups decide that the best way for them to achieve their aims is to work in a constructive and non-confrontational way with the government. When the government holds a consultation, asks the public for their opinions on a proposed law change, they'll send in submissions. They'll seek to have meetings with ministers and MPs at which they'll exchange views in a friendly manner.
Advantage of this approach is that the government would be less likely to listen to a group that had a very critical or confrontational approach to the government. In reality, the government is unlikely to go looking for pressure groups to talk to, seems sensible for the pressure groups to take their case to the government in a calm and reasonable manner. The organisation and its aims must also be considered legitimate by the government. If the government of the day agrees entirely with the proposals made by a certain pressure group, that group is very much an insider. If there's an election and the new government disagrees with what the pressure group stands for, no longer an insider group.
Danger for insider groups that they'll become too closely associated with the government. When a pressure group has support from across the political spectrum, it knows that being close to any one party of government will upset at least some of its members. Barnados, this charity campaigns for the rights of children in particular vulnerable, those in care. With its expertise in running orphanages. Paid by the government to perform services for children. Dual roles mean that such pressure groups must tread a fine line,they are reliant on the government for a chunk of their funding, but at the same time must retain a distant enough relationship to be able to criticise.
Many pressure groups don't follow this path for various reasons. Their supporters may be hostile to the government and prefer to have a confrontational attitude. The causes that the pressure groups supports may be so unpopular with the main parties that they don't have the opportunity to become insiders. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which wants an end to nuclear weapons, has never enjoyed the support of any government, it's central purpose is rejected by the main parties, all of which agree on the need for a nuclear deterrent, so their views aren't taken into account, although the Liberal Democrats tend to be the most sympathetic. The pressure group may at one time have been an insider group, but a change in government might see them lose their status.
In 2000,lorry drivers and other motorist organised fuel protests.They blockaded oil storage depots around the country to prevent petrol being distributed to petrol stations,thereby causing a shortage.This illegal protest is an example of 'outsider' pressure group activity.The protesters were actively hostile to the government and denounced ministers on television.The advantages are that they can say what they feel without worrying about damaging their relationship with ministers and MPs.Marches and protests are good examples of outsider pressure group activities.Their purpose is to highlight that a difference exists between the government's policy and the marchers' beliefs.A march joined by a large number of people which is will received by the public will make ministers think more carefully about future policy decisions. Some will start off as outsider groups and gradually become more involved.Some groups are difficult to categorise as 'sectional' or casual'.The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children-safer and happier children,whilst it concentrates on one section of society,young people.
Pressure Group Activity
As we have seen, pressure groups usually aim to create some change in the law, even if it's just to receive more funding for a particular cause or group. They don't confine their activities to the government and MPs. The UK is a pluralist society, and power doesn't just lie in Westminster.
Pressure groups may also aim their campaigns at other levels of government. A small pressure group that is trying to prevent a block of flats from being built on local fields, target local government, locals council that can make the relevant decisions on planning permission. If the European Union has jurisdiction over a certain matter, parts of agricultural policy, then a farmers pressure group might travel to Brussels to meet with MEPs. Devolution also means that many devisions, including spending decisions, are made in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Many of the larger and better established pressure groups, such as the Royal National Institute for the Blind RNIB, have set up offices in the Welsh and Scottish capitals in the last ten years as a reflection of the shift in power from Westminster to devolved institutions.
Some groups aim to change public attitudes. PETA, an animal rights charity which opposes the use of fur, works hard to persuade the public not to wear fur. Focussing on the public can be a wise move for pressure groups. If they're able to raise public awareness and win over new supporters, then the government may well be more inclined to listen to what they have to say. Advertising campaigns, petitions and public meetings are all ways in which pressure groups can try to gain greater support for their causes from the public.
Media in Pressure Group Activity
Media. As part of an attempt to reach the public with their message, some pressure groups concentrate on trying to attract the attention of the media as a way of raising awareness of their cause. Indeed, most pressure groups welcome any interest in their work from the media because of the extra support they may be able to attract from media exposure. Perhaps the most interesting example of a media-focussed pressure group in recent years has been Fathers 4 Justice.
Founded in 2002. 'F4J' quickly gained reputation for its eye-catching publicity stunts, specialising in climbing up famous buildings dressed in superhero costumes and then refusing to come down. The sight of middle aged men dressed as Batman half way up Buckingham Palace was irresistible for most newspapers. The Times described them as a 'guerrilla pressure group' and F4J became very well known in a short space of time.
They were criticised for being irresponsible but there can be little doubt that they have succeeded in raising awareness about the problems of the family courts and rights of fathers in custody battles following a divorce.
The courts are increasingly an area where pressure groups are active. If a government acts against its own rules, then it can be challenged in court.
In 2002, the Automobile Association took London Mayor Ken Livingstone to court over a proposal to extend a congestion charge scheme, which made motorists pay a fee for entering central london westwards.
Lobbying the Government
Clearly then, there are a number of different routes which a pressure group can take in order to influence the government indirectly, the media, the courts, the public. But how does a pressure group go about lobbying politics directly...
Campaigners will often contact the office of an MP and ask to set up a meeting. If they're granted a meeting, they'll ask the MP about his or her views on their area of interest. If the MP is favourable, they might ask them to put down on Early day Motion. This little more than a written statement, published on Parliament's website, and has no force of law at all, but when EDMs are signed by a large number of MPs, it's quite often reported in the papers and can provide good publicity for pressure groups. They may even ask them to introduce a Private Members Bill. This method of trying to pass a law usually fails, as we will see when we look at Parliament, but like EDMs can generate publicity for a cause.
A friendly MP may also try to schedule a debate on the issue to raise awareness among fellow MPs. The MP might also advise the pressure group on which tactics to use and keep them informed of Parliamentary developments that concern them.
A pressure group may offer to help an MP write a speech of newspaper article to highlight their cause, providing useful facts and arguments for the MP to use. Pressure groups may also organise letter writing campaigns, where they ask their members to send a letter to their local MP outlining their cause and why they want the MP to support them. The number of letters or postcards an Mp receives, indicates of strength on the issue.
While Parliament officially passes laws, it's the government made up of MPs and a few Lords from the largest party that really makes the decisions. Pressure groups would often ideally like to speak directly with ministers. This is only likely to happen if a) the government is already sympathetic to their cause b) the pressure group itself is trusted by the government.
Ministers are under huge time-pressure and cannot meet all the groups that request to speak with them.
There are other ways however for a group to try to influence the government: Sending positions to the government. A group of campaigners handing in a petition calling for a particular course of action is a common sight in Downing Street. The more names a petition has, the more likely it's to catch the attention of the relevant minister.
Letter writing campaigns are often targeted not at MPs in general, but at the minister with responsibility for the policy area the group is concerned with.
Some insider pressure groups build an ongoing relationship with the government and talk regularly, often through the senior civil servants working for the relevant minister. The Howard League for Penal Reform, is in regular contact with Home Office officials over prison condition, the League campaigns fore more humane treatment of prisoners.
A pressure group success story
A number of animal welfare charities, the League Against Cruel Sports, had argued for decades that using horses and packs of dogs to hunt foxes was barbaric and ought to be banned. Fox hunters argued that hunting was a necessary way of keeping fox numbers down, foxes are a major nuisance for farmers. It was also an ancient and traditional pastime, hugely popular with many rural people.
Under the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, these pressure groups were 'outsiders', the government sided with the fox hunters and there was no immediate prospect of achieving a ban. In this situation, groups like LACS took to the streets. It was a common sight on a Saturday morning high street to see animal rights protesters with posters of mutilated foxes and gruesome details about how the fox died, collecting signatures for their petitions.Occasionally, the groups would also organise hard hitting advertising campaigns in the newspapers. All this work was aimed at getting public opinion on the protestors side. At the same time, the campaigners kept in touch with sympathetic MPs.
When Labour came to power in 1997, a fox hunting ban wasn't in the manifesto. The protestors were able to publish opinion polls which showed most British people opposed hunting and would support a ban. The Labour party also knew that many of its working class and urban supporters were strongly in favour of a ban, the aims of the pressure groups were thus aligned with the political needs of the government. This helped to persuade government to give its support to a private members bill by Mike Foster MP which in 2004, after an enormous rally and protests against a ban by pro hunting campaigners, eventually saw hunting with hounds outlawed.
The crucial role of the media
Friendly journalists and newspaper editors will give space on their pages to pressure groups they support. This makes them much more visible and helps them to attract new supporters, or at least to prompt people to think about their aims. Publicity can also put pressure on the government to change policy, especially if it highlights a failure in the current system.
Most pressure groups monitor the media closely and if any story emerges that affects them then they will send press releases to the newspapers in the hope that their comments will be published. Pressure groups known that media coverage is the most effective way of increasing public awareness and support for their cause, simply because of the large numbers of people it'll reach.
Pressure groups employ different methods to attract publicity: Sending out press releases, these are statements of the groups view on particular topical issues of developments. Journalists often rely on press releases for the quotes and commentary they use in articles. Photo opportunities, a pressure group might give prior notice to the media that they'll be doing some eye catching, so that television cameras and photographers can be there to capture it. Amnesty International brought a tank into central London as part of its campaign over human rights abuses in China. This was just the sort of thing that makes an interesting image. As we've seen, Fathers 4 Justice has a flare for getting itself in the newspapers.
Similarly pressure groups try to get their issues into the TV, news, TV journalism-neutral, but that doesn't apply to papers so only the print media usually get heavily involved in assisting a campaign.
In terms of membership some of the largest pressure groups in the UK are trade unions. These are sectional groups, representing the interests of its members in the workforce. Some unions are very specific about whom they represent, the National Union of Journalists, while others welcome members from nearly all types of industry, Transport and General Workers Union.
Just fewer than 12 million workers belonged to a union in 1980. By 2003, this had fallen to 7 million. About 20% of public sector workers and 12% of those in the private sector are union members.
As we've seen, trade unions have always been very closely associated with the Labour party, but most people don't join a union for purely political reasons. Many teachers join a union in case they need the legal help and advice the offer if a complaint is made against them. Unions are vigorous in defending their members if they're unfairly treated by their employers and membership for many people is a form of insurance against unfair dismissal or bad treatment.
The 1970s was the era of greatest union power. More than 12 million people were members and the undemocratic and centralised structures of most unions meant that union bosses had a high degree of power. They were able to call a strike without consulting their members. Many union leaders held strong left wing views and were seen as hostile to businesspeople and commerce particularly over pay levels.
Trade Unions 2
By the end of the decade, unions were seen by many people, including many of their own members. as too powerful and out of control. The economic problems the country faced at this time were partly blamed on union demands for pay increases. Indeed Ted Heath's question to the electorate during an election campaign in 1974 was 'Who Governs?' The government or the unions?
The Thatcher government introduced new rules to curb union powers. Members now have to be consulted in a postal vote before a strike can be held, and members can choose not to allow any of the union subscription fees to be paid to the Labour party. These rules were effective at limiting the political power of the unions. For this reason, the unions and the 1979-1997 Conservative government had a fairly bad relationship, and the unions had high hopes of becoming more influential when New Labour won power. Under previous Labour governments, unions had been very much insider pressure groups, with famous 'beer and sandwich' meeting in Downing Street with Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the 1970s. This status did not prevent them from criticising Labour governments however or from calling strikes that damaged Labour. Tony Blair didn't reinstate this relationship.
New Labours belief in the importance of the markets made them wary of the unions. Union bosses felt ignored and snubbed by Tony Blair and as his premiership went on, many unions openly criticised him, over plans for foundation hospitals, and re assessed the level of financial support they gave the party. The bad feeling culminated during the Trade Union Congress the umbrella body for all unions, annual meeting in 2006, when Blair was booed by delegates and the RMT union led a 700 person walk out from the conference hall during his speech. It's clear that unions are no longer the powerful pressure groups they once were, still a formidable force and their national organisations and wealth mean no government can ignore a concerted campaign led by them
Commercial pressure groups
Businesses have always sought to influence the government.