What role do pressure groups play in the British political system?

In the last years the role of pressure groups in the political process have been broadly discussed as the groups roles today seems to be unclear and the level of influence is difficult to measure. This essay will discuss. What role do pressure groups play in the British political system? Why are some groups more influential than others?

As a common definition: pressure groups are voluntary organisations formed to advance or defend a common cause or interest. Therefore they are unlike political parties in that they do not wish to assume responsibility for governing the country; rather they seek to influence those who do so. [1]To some extend, pressure groups do not aspire to govern the country and are concerned with a relatively narrow range of problems; is has been argued that much of their work is non-political but as much as their concerns and aspirations are affected by government they seek to have an influence over the conduct of public policy. Another view is “Pressure groups seek to influence rather than power, yet pluralist argue that power is effectively dispersed through the widespread influence of countless groups on government and policy making”. [2] Additionally, groups seek to defend and advance their own interest or cause, and government policy or specific decisions may affect them adversely or beneficially. Therefore they have a strong motive to seek to influence government, especially as power in the British political system is concentrated with the core executive. However, the universe of pressure groups now requires more systematic subdivisions. The problem at once encountered is that the traditional ways of doing it hardly seem adequate. The oldest classification in the technical literature is the one introduced in 1935 by Harwood Childs of Princeton University[3], who distinguished between those groups “whose community of interests is based on such fundamental differentials as age, sex, occupation and race, from those existing merely to further special ideas or groups of ideas. Furthermore, because their concerns are liable to be affected by government decisions, they need to be organised in order to influence ministers and respond to what they propose. “In Britain the tendency is to use the term ‘pressure groups’ and then to sub-divide them into different categories. The world ‘pressure’ has an unfortunate connotation and many groups operate without resorting to any degree of coercion”.[4] In both case and its simplest; pressure groups are not counting political parties that influence or attempt to influence the public authorities, mainly the central government and they traditionally operated at four main levels, seeking to influence the Executive, the Legislature, the Judiciary and the public at large. In Britain and Europe, they tend to be more closely associated with government.

Now; coming to the first question. Groups play different influential roles.

Influencing the executive is one of them. For instance, the British Medical Association can not only inform the Department of Health about any epidemic of a virulent form of influenza or meningitis, they can also help by carrying out a programme of mass immunisation. Similarly, the National Farmers Union, representing as it does the vast majority of farmers, can help the Department of farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) not only by tendering advice, but also ensuring that its members take careful precautions to ensure that an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is contained.[5] In the case of the Legislature, today, many groups activists seek to influence elected representatives. Moreover, tight party discipline makes such parliamentary action less effective. For example: Trade unions have traditionally had a strong and close relationship with the Labour party ever since they helped to create it at the beginning of the century. In recent years, the constitutional and financial ties have loosened, and the emotional and historical bonds count for less than they did in the past. In influencing the Judiciary British groups may turn to the law and use test cases to highlight an issue and bring about pressure for change. In 1994, Greenpeace and Lancashire County Council challenged the opening and commissioning of the Thorp nuclear processing plant.[6] At the end of the day they gained valuable publicity even though they lost the battle. Besides, in Britain and other several democracies, the courts are likely to become more important as an access point in the future. Finally, influencing the public opinion; In UK, it used to be said that ‘more noise equals least success’, and that those groups which operated at the public level did so only because of their impotence at the parliamentary and executive levels. Additionally the most effective groups seemed to be those which operated behind closed doors, lobbying discreetly those with the power of decision. In the other hand in the latest years pressure groups have developed a more sophisticated approach to the ways by which they seek to influence ‘pressure points’ in the political process. Some have turned to the use of the new commercial ‘lobbying industry’, which was developed in America and has been imported into Britain since 1980’s. [7] Professional lobbyists were defined in a House of Commons report as those who are ‘professionally employed to lobby on behalf of clients or who advice clients on how to lobby on their own behalf’. Furthermore, in the British political system groups aid democracy in several ways. They provide detailed and valuable information on areas of economic and social activity, thereby helping to promote better decision-making.  As well, they help to maintain dialogue between government and the governed between elections; defend the interests of minorities in the communities, particularly those which do not gain a powerful outlet via political parties. Therefore, the role of groups in politics today is highly influential to the process and it could be argued that without these groups the political interaction between politicians and people in general would be even harder. So, in this sense; groups are beneficial for the government. Besides, much of the most visible pressure group activity involves influencing public opinion, although this can be time-consuming and expensive in resources, and may be less effective than other channels. At the end, the debate over the role of pressure groups in the political process is closely bound up with arguments over the distribution of power and the extend of democracy, both in Britain and in other modern western political systems.

Generally, the most common roles among the groups are: collect and sort out groups opinions to produce an agreed position (interest aggregation), and argue their case in the political arena (interest articulation). Also, pressure groups inform and educate their members about political issues, and act as channels of communication between citizens, and between citizens and political elites.[8] In the pluralist view, pressure groups play an essential role. Political parties cannot provide adequate representation for the full range of diverse interests and opinions in a modern democracy because their key function is to aggregate interests into a coherent political entity capable of governing the country. Pressure groups enable particular interests and causes to be heard and to exert influence in public decision and decision-making. Yet it is precisely the representation of specialist interests and of single issues which may give cause for concern, both in terms of the methods used to achieve objectives and of the undue power and influence which particular lobbies can exert. Moreover, it has been claimed that pluralists believe that pressure groups overcome the democratic deficit that builds up as most people’s political participation is to cast a vote every five years, this leading to people having little or no influence over decisions made between elections, and minority views not being represented.[9] Also, pressure groups increase participation and access to the political system, thereby enhancing the quality of democracy. They complement and supplement electoral democracy in two main ways: first, by providing an important mechanism by which citizens can influence government between elections; and second by enabling opinions to be weighed as well as counted.

Coming to the second question; the way the pressure is applied into the government make those groups highly important in the political process. In first instance; the influence on the core executive is commonly the most direct and effective way to look after those interests and groups may only seek to influence Parliament, political parties or public opinion when this direct route fails. In this case, much effective influence may involve not high-profile meetings with ministers, but routine behind-the scenes discussions with officials. [10]Many group representatives sit with civil servants on the large number of committees advising government. Many group spokespersons will have frequent formal and informal contacts with their ‘opposite numbers in Whitehall. In the other hand, many groups are organized into pyramids in the same way as voluntary associations, with a broad base of local groups, all the way up to a single international peak association. Trade unions, business and trade associations, churches and professional organisations are notable in this respect but it applies no less to many other kinds of pressure groups. Such tight and well-organized structure can make pressure groups a formidable political force and make a difference in the level of influence. However, their power depends on the tactics they adopt and the targets they are able to aim at in their political campaigns.

A more balanced argument is that influence; rest on the power to persuade, and is the most usual way in which pressure groups are able to affect the decision making process. Government makes concessions to these groups because of the validity of its arguments, for example because the group is able to demonstrate that the proposed policy is unworkable or would damage the economy, or because its arguments have moral force.

Government and Parliament may also be influenced by the state of public opinion on the particular issue, although it must be stressed that the majority of concern discussed between pressure groups and government are of such a technical character that there is no public opinion in relation to them.[11]

In the opposite case, it has been argued that even if the British political process were conducted in conditions of less secrecy, it would be difficult to estimate the effectiveness of the group itself.[12] Some cause groups have relatively simple objectives, and it is possible to say whether or not they have been attained. Now, Pluralists argued that power is effectively dispersed in modern western democracies; they claim that pressure groups promoting one interest or cause stimulate the growth of rival groups to counter their arguments as has happened in Britain. Elitists argue by contrast that power remains concentrated in the hands of a few. The contest between groups, they claim, remains profoundly unequal, in part because of massive differences in resources. In this case, is almost obvious that the more resources these groups can afford the more influential they can get into the political process. And to some extend; it can also be argued that the use of violence and intimidation works but it rarely used, for example supporters of the Animal Liberation Front break into laboratories, release animals, and target the persons and property of any individual remotely connected with experiments on animals.

As a result is tempting to conclude that there is a fundamental link between the existence of pressure groups and the very survival of a system of democratic government. Freedom of association is a fundamental principle of democracy. Democracy permits the existence of groups, but it could also be argued that groups contribute to the quality of the decision-making process. So, in this case the role and the influence of these groups are necessary to the political process. Moreover, it is believed that pressure group power is limited. Because, it is based on the ability to persuade and to influence, rather than to take decisions or, with certain exceptions, to veto them. Groups which have enjoyed significant power at particular periods of time, such as the trade union, have usually experienced a public reaction against them. Nevertheless, one should not be too complacent about the position of pressure groups in the political system. The cards are often stacked in favour of established insider groups. As a counterpart, it is believed that if pressure groups were allowed to accumulate too much influence, then there would be a risk for democracy. As it is, pressure groups operate in a political system in which they are checked by other political forces. It is also believed that those groups are beneficial to counter the monopoly of the political life by parties, allowing for the taking-up of issues which often fall outside the agenda of party politicians; for instance, cause groups took up environmental concerns before politicians did.

For that reason is to believe that pressure groups are valuable organisations. It is easy to portray them as special interests intent on undermining democracy and the interests of the public, but in either case they represent and articulate legitimate viewpoints which need to be expressed. In addition, it could be argued that modern government could not exist without them, for they provide necessary knowledge and expertise to policymakers, and monitor effectiveness of existing policies and ideas for alternative ones.

To sum up, in UK the influence and effectiveness of pressure groups varies to the time and the nature of the cause. Generally speaking, money and resources are an advantage. So, in this case groups with more economical resources are the most influential. Furthermore, if those groups can show that the interests or causes which they represent are ones which are relevant to the wider national good, they can influence the political process even more. It is also true that pressure group activity confers advantages on wealthy, well-organised and well connected groups, and those able to inflict sanctions on government by withdrawing their cooperation. Yet, as with parties, their contribution to democratic life is indispensable. Dealing as they often do with narrow and specialized issues they are a vital channel between the governed and the governors. Nevertheless, the task of governing a nation of nearly 60 million people, and ensuring some conformity between popular wishes and government decisions, is enormous in its complexity.


-Budge & MacKay; The New British Politics, 4th edition, Pearson and Longman, 2007.

– Coxal & Leach; British Politics, Palgrave Foundations, 2004.

-D. Watts; Understanding politics; US- UK government and politics; Manchester University press;  2003

-G. Wooton; Pressure groups in Britain (1720-1970), Penguin books,  1975.

– G. Wooton ; Pressure politics in contemporary Britain; Lexington Books, 1980.

– W. Grant; Pressure groups, politics and democracy in Britain; 2nd edition, 1995.

[1] D.Watts, Understanding politics; US-UK government and politics, Manchester and New York, 2003, p.221

[2]  Coxal & Robins, British politics, New York, Plagrave Macmillan, 2006, p.131

[3] An introduction to Public Opinion (1935), by H.J Childs.

[4] D.Watts,  p.221

[5] D.Watts, p.229

[6] D.Watts, p.232

[7] D. Watts P.237

[8] Budge & Mckay; The New British Politics, 4th edition, England, 2007, p.293

[9] G. Wooton; Pressure Politics in Contemporary Britain; 1980, p.56

[10] Budge & Mckay, p.136

[11] W. Grant; Pressure groups, politics and democracy in Britain; 2nd edition; 1995 p.127

[12] W. Grant, p.128


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