Roles and functions of pressure groups

Pressure groups perform a vital role in our democratic process. If we didi noit tolerate and encourage pressure groups, we could not call oursleves a democracy.

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Positive functions

  • They enable individuals to participate in the national political process between elections. For example, you can join a group to ban foxhunting even though you might have voted for an MP or party that favours it. Pressure groups give citizens another voice in the decision - making process.
  • They are a useful way for individuals to participate in in local and national politics, besides voting. Pressure groups are formed to try and persuade a council to keep open a village school, for example, or to persuade the the local planning committee to refuse permission for a branch of McDonald's or Tesco to open in an area.
  • They ensure that minorities, such as homosexuals, people with AIDS or those who wish to close all shops on Sundays, for example, can make their voice heard. They help to prevent a 'tyranny of the majority', where the majority impose possible intolerant policies on a minority group in the community.
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Positive functions (continued)

  • They make the government aware of views other than those coming through political parties or the civil service. For example, the 'official' view is that genetically modified crops, widely grown in the USA, are perfectly safe. However, certain pressure groups in the UK have hindered their development (sometimes using illegal methods) and insisted that there should be further debate on the issue. Whether it is 'democratic' for such a minority to hold back what people might see as real progress is an important question to debate.  
  • They can bring expert knowledge to the government's attention on an important issue. For example, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), whose memberhip includes many very experienced casualty doctors and health and safety experts, has played a major role in making cars and our roads safer by providing government with expert advice.
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Positive functions (continued x2)

  • They can generate new ideas. This type of pressure group is sometimes known as a 'thinktank'. Good examples of these are the Institue for Public Policy Research, Demos and Compass, which had a lot of influence on New Labour thinking, and the Policy Exchange, Reformand the Centre for Policy Studies, which had a lot of influence on Conservative ideas.
  • They enable groups that are not seen as electorally important, such as students, to make their views known.
  • They perform as useful scrutiny function. It does no harm for decision takers at all levels to know that there could be a well - organised and informed group monitoring their actions.
  • They have a good safety - valve function - they provide an outlet between elections for the public to make their views known.
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Positive functions (continued x3)

  • They encourage informed debate on issues. While NoTRAG argues the case against a third runway at Heathrow, pressure groups representing the airlines, passengers, local industries and tourism argue the case for. Pressure groups can balance each other out.
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Harmful functions

  • They can be sectional and selfish. One powerful group can dominate an issue, such as healthcare. The GPs and consultants are very powerfully organised, and nurses and patients may lose out as a result.
  • They can be so skilled at putting pressure on ministers and Parliament that the latter forget the interests of the general public. For example, in the cases of salmonella eggs and BSE in cows, it is argued that the health interests of of the general public were not the main concern of ministers and civil servants. The interests of the farmers and the NFU were seen as more important.
  • A few elite groups dominate society - as one write put it, 'in pluralist heaven the heavenly choir sings with a strong upper - class accent'. The Bar Council, which looks after the interests of barristers, is a good example here. Many critics of the legal system, with its high costs and slowness, and the need to emply both a solicitor and a barrister in major cases, feel that the Bar Council's dominant postion is a brrier to reform. The large numbers of lawyers in poltics is sometimes felt to prevent law reforms that would be in the public interest. 
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Harmful functions (continued)

  • Pressure groups are very good at stopping activites which other people may feel are needed. When the building of the M42 was held up by pressure groups for 14 years, Midlands industry and employment were estimated to have suffered considerably as a result.
  • They can cause social disharmony, as tose groups who are not well organised lose out to those thare are. Consider the conflict between the Lord's Day Observance Society and the Supermarkets over Sunday trading. Shops that wished to open on Sunday organised themselves into a very powerful pressure group and raised a lot of money to pressurise parliament to change the law. The Lord's Day Observance Society simply could not match their recourses, although polls at the time indicated a fair amount of support for their cause. The retail trade unions, who opposed Sunday trading on behalf of their members, also could not match the recourses of the Supermarkets. The majority of those union members opposed the change. Supermarkets, needless to say, are open on Sundays.
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Harmful functions (continued x2)

  • Small numbers of people who are not elected or really representative of the mebership dominate some groups. The non - elected leadership of one of the motoring organisations, for example, opposed the compulsory wearing of seat belts, but a newspaper poll of the organisations's members revealed overwhelming support for the measure.
  • They can be very undemocratic in structure. Not all have elections for senior postions, and a single powerful individual can dominate with their own particlar agenda and methodology.
  • They are not regulated in any way.
  • Rich pressure groups can afford to hire the best PR companies, lawyers and professional lobby organisations which employ ex - ministers, civil servants and generals - and win.
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