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What Is a Pressure Group?
A pressure group is an organisation whose members share common interest and seeks to influence governmental policy.
They differ from political parties in three key ways:
- They have no intention of starting up their own government—only influencing the one currently in power.
- They focus on one main area of concern and thoroughly discuss and campaign for that issue; political parties have a manifesto which covers a very wide variety of issues.
- They usually do not have elected members, like political parties which must have elected candidates.
Types of Pressure Groups
Political scientists – those scientists that study political statistics and draw conclusions from them – categorise political pressure groups by the following characteristics:
2. Geographical scope
5. Methods of campaigning
Read on to see the different types of pressure groups!
1. Sectional Pressure Groups
These are groups that try to preserve themselves or benefit themselves economically. Sectional groups act out of self-interest but readers should remember that this is not necessarily a bad or immoral thing to do: e.g. trade unions and employer’s organisations have historically been very useful in protecting people’s working rights and preventing tyranny.
Examples of sectional pressure groups include:
- National Education Union (formerly NUT - National Union of Teachers)
- IWW: The Union for All Workers
- BMA (British Medical Association)
2. Cause or Promotional Pressure Groups
These groups act not out of economical self-benefit but for a particular cause that they feel is important to them: animal rights, the environment, starving children etc.
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Groups That Are Hard to Classify
The Countryside Alliance, a pressure group that is trying to legalise fox hunting in the countryside, can be thought of as being both a cause group - because it uses justifications like farmers' losing their livestock - and sectional, because it is catering to a particular section of society - those who live in the countryside.
Then again, the latter statement could be challenged because although the law would mostly affect people who live in the countryside, a law legalising foxes would affect the entire country - not just a section.
3. Local Groups
These are groups that try and change something locally, such as preventing the destruction of a local natural beauty or the removal of a local children’s hospital.
A recent example is the temporary pressure group 'Save Lewisham Hospital' which managed not only to stop Lewisham Hospital from closing down but also offered the same privilege to its nearby and under-performing sister hospital. Despite major cuts to the funding of both hospitals, the result was widely regarded as a great success and a strong example of the strength of local pressure groups.
4. National Groups
These are groups that deal with issues on a national scale. Examples include the NEU - the National Education Union - which promotes and protects the rights of education staff, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) which works to protect children.
5. Transnational Groups
Groups that are active in many nations. Known examples include: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and Oxfam.
6. Peak or ‘Umbrella’ Groups
These groups speak for a variety of other smaller groups. Examples include the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Trades Union Congress (TUC).
7. Temporary Groups
These are groups with one finite goal that will terminate themselves after they complete it. A local group that campaigns to save a local hospital won’t have that goal to campaign for if they succeed in establishing that it will remain. Similarly, the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (1955-1968) in the UK was stopped when capital punishment was abolished.
8. Permanent Groups
This is a group that stays around for as long as they can in order to continue fighting for their cause.
A local group that saves a children’s hospital may not wind itself up after the hospital is said to be safe from being removed. Instead, it could transform into a permanent group that will stay around to fend off any future threat to the hospital.
It is within the nature of many groups that they will remain indefinitely. For example, Oxfam was founded over 70 years ago (1942) and has the insatiable goal of fighting poverty around the world. Even if poverty were to vanish, it would be likely that the charity would remain so as to ensure it never returns.
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Inside and Outside Pressure Groups
As well as the above 8 categories, a given pressure group can be either an insider or outside group.
Insider groups work very closely with the government regularly and are the experts who advise the government on specific issues. Examples include the British Medical Association (BMA) and Trade Union Congress (TUC). The former looks after the rights of medical workers, but also contains within it vast amounts of knowledge about medicine and the medical industry, and so are used when the government are making decisions about things like the NHS.
External insider groups differ from insider groups in that they are not asked for guidance as regularly as insider groups.
Willing outsider groups are those that actively stay away from government, not wishing to associate nor necessarily even work with government—just get the change that they want.
Unwilling outsider groups are groups that would prefer to be insider groups with the government but because of the political climate are not favourable. A current example of this (in 2013) is the Fathers for Justice pressure group.
The Police Association, although being like a trade union, is not actually allowed to strike—as this has been deemed to dangerous for the public, who without a police force would be put at risk.
A group can also be something comically called a 'prison group': a captive group, one that the government is so heavily involved with that it practically owns it. The English Heritage group is an example of this; this is the group that looks after the country's most prized locations and buildings, for example Stone Henge. Another example of a prison group is the Police Association: the equivalent of a trade union for the police force.
How Do Pressure Groups Apply Pressure?
- Funding political parties
- Boycotting firms and brands
- Breaking controversial laws
- Writing to MP’s or local councillors
- Lobbying key policy-makers
- Distributing informative leaflets and pamphlets
- Using the media and new technologies like Facebook and Twitter to spread their cause (and so effect referendum voting and general elections)
- Demonstrating/protesting (like the anti-poll tax demonstration of March 1990)
How Are Pressure Groups Useful to Society?
Pressure groups are treasured by representative democracies like the USA and the UK because they give ordinary people a chance to voice their views and be heard—even when it’s not time to vote.
Pressure groups allow us to influence the government and so let us become more directly involved with how things are run in our lives.
Cons of Pressure Groups
- Pressure groups tend to take away attention from elections - people only have a limited amount of time to involve themselves in politics.
- Single-issue groups channel enthusiasm away from elections.
- They can allow well-organised and even corrupt minorities to drown out the general public.
- They often provide biased and conflicting evidence to government and voters.
Pros of Pressure Groups
- Allow participation between elections
- Give a voice to minority groups who, if they are loud enough, can get their voices heard over a majority opposition who were not as passionate
- Provide objective information to government and voters
- Reinforce the credibility of liberal democracy, because pressure groups show that policies can be changed all the time by average people and not just the rich.
- Use of headline-grabbing stunts by pressure groups to win publicity is healthy, because it widens the terms of political debate.
What about you?
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.