A pressure group is an amalgamation of people who have come together to change government policy over an issue. In the USA they are called Interest Groups (or sometimes Special Interest Groups). They exert influence on the government in many ways.
  • Lobbying: The pressure group can lobby an influencial person in the political system who might be able to alter policy.
  • Education: The pressure group can educate either the executive, the legislature, the judiciary or the people on the issues that the pressure group is interested in and the side that the pressure group believes to be true. This leads to political pressure being put on the decision makers by the "educated" people.
  • Direct Action: This activity tends to be the tool more of outsider groups than insider groups (see below). Using direct action often creates great pressure on a government and gives the group a lot of media exposure but governments don't always cave into the demands of the protestors (for example, the fuel protests against the Labour government (in the UK). The protestors blockaded refinaries etc. to try and force the government to lower fuel tax but the government refused to give in. Eventually public opinion forced the protestors to stop).

A pressure group can be classified in many different ways. They can be either:

(or rarely) These classifications can be mixed and matched to apply to pretty much any catagory (I know of no exceptions) such as insider cause group or sectional outsider/insider group.

You also get what are called NIMBY groups (Not In My Back Yard) which fight for a specific local issue (such as a motorway being built near their house).

There are also many campaigns that attain their goal and then disband such as the Snowdrop Campaign that fought to ban handguns in Britain after Dunblane.

What Makes a Pressure Group Effective?

There are many factors which can affect how effective a pressure group is in its task.

  • Large membership. The more people in a pressure group, the bigger the mandate that it has. If it is representing a large portion of the public then the government would be foolish to ignore it (for fear of being removed from office at the next election).

  • The cause that they promote. Linked with the reason above. If the cause is one which no one cares about then it is unlikely to gain many members, much funding or much attention from the government. However, an issue which inspires the people to put pressure on the government will have the opposite affect and will lead to the pressure group gaining support.

  • Context. The issues prominent at the time at which the group is present makes a difference to the effectiveness of the pressure group. The Snowdrop campaign was very successful because it can into being after the Dunblane massacre. This context meant the the group was able to gain large amounts of support which lead to the banning of hanguns in Britain.

  • Money. Money makes the world go round and also makes pressure groups work better (if it is present). With money comes the ability to do the group's work such as hold rallies, make posters, start up initiatives (such as soup kitchens) and do the general administration that is required. When a group is poorly funded it cannot do much that can get itself seen in the public eye (and therefore gain more funding). This makes it difficult for groups whose interest may not be high on the understanding of the public.

  • Type of members/Type of backing. If the group is made up of a bunch of dirty hippys, then it is less likely that the government (or the public) is going to take much notice of you. However, if the group is made up of powerful business men, who contribute strongly to the party/economy, then the government will probably jump at your every beck and call. The CBI has a very strong position because it is backed by powerful and rich business men/women and its members are very rich and powerful as well. However, animal rights activists may not fair so well.

  • Tactics. The use of direct action can be quite effective in reaching its goal. However, it depends what this goal is. Many activists think that camping in trees and digging tunnels is going to stop the building of a road. This rarely happens (to the best of my knowledge anyway). What direct action does do is bring their issue into the limelight where people may decide that they are correct. Or it is possible they will think that what the group is doing is stupid (such as the fuel crisis in the UK where farmers and lorry drivers blocked oil refineries so that petrol could not get to petrol stations. This got across their point but people were pissed about not being able to drive).

    Lobbying often manages to get the government's attention and allows a pressure group to tell the government their side of an issue. However, this sometimes makes little difference since the government can just plain ignore it.

  • Recognition. Whether the government recognises the pressure group (whether the group is an insider or an outsider group) makes the group more or less effective because it alters the channels that the group can use to inform the government. If the group is an outsider then it would be more difficult for that group to inform the government via consultations and reports.

How Pressure Groups Enhance Democracy

In the UK, pressure groups play a key role in enhancing democracy (I assume this is the case elsewhere in the world and the following points will be easily adapted to different political systems). Since the UK political system has evolved from a monarchy to a parliamentary system it has not had revolutionary changes to its constitution. This means that their are not many checks and balances written into the constitution to control the executive (or the legislature/judiciary for that matter). This means that the executive has the ability to do whatever it wishes to as long as it has a majority in the House of Commons. This can lead to the position of an elected dictator (the Prime Minister) being in absolute control.

However, as the constitution evolved to allow this sort of position, so have other checks and balances also grown to fill the void. Pressure groups are one of these checks. Grown from the increasing number of trade unions, pressure groups have gained great esteem in the political system. This is because they are seen to benefit democracy in the UK.

Over the years voter apathy has increased leading to the government being elected into power with decreasingly small percentages of the electorates' votes. This means that the wishes of the people as a whole are not being portrayed by the government (though this is their fault for not voting in the first place). Pressure groups allow the public to participate in the political system apart from just voting. They allow like minded people to work together in an orgainised manner. The system at the moment doesn't allow much interaction between the people and government apart from the constituency link between constituents and their MP. Pressure groups change this.

They also bring onto the television screens of the people political issues. The government and the people may not have liked the fuel protests but it brought to the limelight the idea of taxation, especially as a means to cut down on a product (the same way that cigarettes are heavily taxed, petrol is taxed heavily in the UK to keep the price artificially high to try and persuade people to stop using their cars).

They play an important role in representing the views of the minorities in society. The electoral system used at the moment (First Past the Post) is a simple plurality system and so there is barely any representation at all. This means that the views of the minorities are often misrepresnted in Parliament. A pressure group for that minority allows them to be represented as a whole and so they (and the government) can formulate policies through this group. So, for example, the views of enviromentalists may not be represented through the election of a Conservative government but their views can be represented via a pressure group(s) which can attempt to influence the government.

Pressure groups also play a very strong scrutiny role. In the adverserial parliamentary system the opposition is supposed to scrutinise the government. But if the opposition is weak or divided then it will not scrutinise as well as it should. The second chamber also may not be up to the task of scrutinising government. Pressure groups on the other hand constantly watch the government and publish items that show the government going against what that pressure group wants. With the wide range of pressure groups the government ends up being scrutinised on a wide range of issues constantly. They also aid John Major's Open Government initiative by creating an easy, accessible way for ministers to express ("leak") government business as well as being an institution for scrutinising government documentation that has been released.

The educational aspect of pressue groups' role is also very important. One of the faults with democracy (and direct democracy especially) is the fact that the people are often ill informed and therefore will probably make bad decisions. Pressure groups alleviate this by teaching the public on issues (political or otherwise). Thought they tend to be fairly one sided a lot of the time, there are often opposing pressure groups (such as the pro-life and pro-abortion groups) which means that both sides of the argument are discussed. Even if there is just the one sided view, it atleast spurs interest in the topic at hand, hopefully creating a desire to learn more about the issue before arriving at a decision.

The educational aspect has another side to it as well. The government is not all knowing. The civil servants who advise the government, though widely read, do not know everything. Therefore they consult various institutions, many of whom are pressure groups, to garner information. Once this is done they advise their ministers appropriately. There is also the oppurtunity for the pressure group to lobby influencial people, educating them in the process. This has the collective consequence of creating debate inside Parliament.
This is one of the reasons why there have been calls for the opposition to have civil servant advisors. In debates, the government has an army of civil servants to find relevant information to aid them in the debate. The opposition only has their own party to do this and so debates can end up being one sided.

Finally, pressure groups also can show the public interest for a cause. If the group has a large membership, it is probably safe to say that they have great support from the public. This allows the government to see where public opinion lies (though it doesn't beat a good poll).

Arguments Against Pressure Groups Enhancing Democracy

Examples

Greenpeace can be classified as a cause insider and outsider group.
The CBI is a sectional cause insider group.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is a cause insider and outsider group.
The British Medical Association is a sectional insider group (as are most Trade Unions).

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