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.
The term pressure group is a very wide definition that does not clearly distinguish between the groups that fall under the term. For example, a pressure group can be a huge organisation like the CBI (Confederation of British Industry), which represents 150,000 businesses, and it can also be a single-issue locally based organisation like CLARA (Central Area Leamington Resident’s Association), which represents less than 300 households campaigning to preserve and improve the town of Leamington Spa. The definition also does not distinguish between the more extreme pressure groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, whose campaigns include the illegal activities such as planting bombs, and the pressure groups such as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), which have links to the Labour government and regular contact with cabinet ministers.
The aim of all pressure groups is to influence the people who actually have the power to make decisions. Pressure groups do not look for the power of political office for themselves, but do seek to influence the decisions made by those who do hold this political power. Often pressure groups find themselves competing with rival pressure groups with the aim of gaining an advantage over them, but sometimes groups work together to achieve a common aim.
Pressure groups provide a means of popular participation in national politics between elections. They are sometimes able to gather sufficient support to force government to amend or even scrap legislation. For example, in March 1998 around 300,000 people went to London to protest about the Labour government’s rural policies – the ‘Countryside March’ – the government reacted by announcing plans for a Ministry of Rural Affairs and by publishing a white paper investigating all aspects of rural life.
Pressure groups also provide a means of participation in local politics between elections. For example, in 1994 the A452 Coordination Group campaigned to block plans by Warwickshire County Council to make the A452 a dual carriageway. After the group’s intense lobbying, the council dropped the plans. Pressure groups also act as a sense of specialist knowledge, and often have access to information that is highly valued by decision makers. For example, MENCAP and MIND – groups campaigning on behalf of people with mental disabilities – are often invited to give government briefings. In return, these groups have an input into the making of decisions, and they can also receive financial contributions direct from the government.
A pressure groups can use a variety of different methods to influence law. Firstly, it can merely inform legislators of its member’s preferences. Second it may well give money or time to help with an election campaign. Third, its members may threaten, as a group, to vote as a bloc. By doing this they promise to help a cooperative legislator, and threaten to harm a non-cooperative legislator. Fourth, a pressure group may speed up legislation by writing bills and helping legislators make progressive agreements. Finally, a pressure group my attempt to influence members of the executive, who have some law making input and who can partly decide the strength and effectiveness of law enforcement.
Some examples of the many British pressure groups are:
|Charter 88 – campaigning for a written constitution and entrenched Bill of Rights; British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection – campaigning to halt the breeding and use of animals in experiments; British Roads Federation – aiming to focus attention for a higher standard of service from the UK road network; Earth First – campaigning against the destruction of the environment; Liberty – campaigning to defend and extend human rights and civil liberties; Unison – trade union for public sector workers; National Union of Students (NUS); National Union of Teachers (NUT); National Farmer’s Union (NFU); British Medical Association (BMA); Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR); Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA); National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).|