Pressure Groups / Protest Movements

A pressure group is a body which seeks to influence government policy without seeking office itself, usually focused on a single issue or narrow group of ideas.

Differs from a political party as they just seek to influence policy. Political parties will seek to appeal to a variety of different pressure groups in order to achieve victory.

Different types of pressure group

Insider groups – These groups have direct access to government ministers and top officials and therefore build up a good professional relationship, which can help to formulate policy. There is usually a corresponding government ministry e.g. BMA and Health Department, which further strengthens the link between them. They are professionals and are therefore asked their opinion on legislation, help at times of crisis e.g. NFU during the Foot and Mouth outbreak and have professional powers e.g.. BMA can strike a doctor off the list.

Outsider groups – On the other hand these groups do not wish or are unable to be close to the government. For example CND are a long established pressure group yet the government would never seek their opinion on defence policy. The countryside alliance represents the views of the rural population and has been a strong supporter of fox hunting, yet Labour never sought their advice over this issue. Remains to be seen how they will be viewed under the new government.

Sectional groups – These groups represent the needs of certain groups of society, e.g. teachers, workers in certain industries, lawyers etc. They seek to improve the status of their members and in some instances have been successful e.g. preventing London underground being privatised, likewise the Postal Service. Big fight at the moment for public sector pensions.

Cause groups – These types of groups can be split into two areas. Firstly, the local level group who are against a change in their area e.g. plane stupid set up in protest about Heathrow 3rd runway. Secondly, the group with ongoing much wider issues e.g. Occupy, Oxfam, Greenpeace & Shelter, which may take longer and has a larger impact on people’s lives. Shelter highlighted homelessness and benefitted from an advertising campaign which raised awareness.

Role of pressure groups

Positive functions

  • Enable people to participate in politics in between elections
  • Can allow people to participate in local politics e.g. cause group
  • Allow minorities to have their voice heard preventing tyranny of the majority
  • They provide professional and detailed information on topic areas
  • Give government a diverse range of opinions and views
  • They can generate new ideas in areas that politicians perhaps did not have the time to look at e.g. think tanks

Negative functions

  • Sectional groups can be dominated by powerful groups e.g. BMA and doctors
  • Can force the government to forget about the needs of the public by protecting their members e.g NFU and Foot and Mouth
  • They contribute to an elitist society, where they prevent reform e.g. the Bar Council who are accused of slowing down legal reform
  • Can slow down necessary change and hinder business e.g. Huntingdon Life Sciences was nearly closed down by animal rights activists
  • Certain pressure groups are better organised and wealthier, as a result they get what they want e.g. supermarkets over Sunday trading, even though workers and religious groups felt it unnecessary.
  • They are unelected and many are dominated by elite groups which could impact on the rest of the population.

Note the above arguments can be integrated into an argument as to whether pressure groups benefit or hinder democracy


  • Allows participation between elections

  • Provide a voice for minority groups

  • Provide objective info for government

  • Everybody can have a voice and make a difference

  • Use of publicity widens public debate


  • Single issues detract from elections
  • If well organised will drown out majority
  • Info can also be biased and conflicting
  • Elites can dominate policy influence
  • Stunts are irresponsible and dangerous

Remember to look at pluralist, neo-pluralist and elitist perspectives

Pressure Group Methods

  • Local petitions, letters and lobbying of MPs, councillors, Peers to push their particular issue.
  • Using the European Union, where many pressure groups are now based and which can have major impact on UK law.
  • Advertising and use of media/internet, for example ASH and Fuel Protest groups used these methods to spread their views.
  • Peaceful marches and demonstrations, e.g. Stop the War 2003
  • Use of the courts to prevent an injustice e.g.Herceptin being refused cancer patients on the grounds of cost
  • Strikes have been used by teachers and fire-fighters recently over pay and working hours
  • Publicity stunts, such as those used by Occupy to highlight the problems caused by capitalism.
  • Hiring professional lobbyists to get your proposals ahead of your competitors and they also use MPs on their books. This is to be tightened after Margaret Moran and Geoff Hoon both agreed to lobby for money and get colleagues on board in 2010.
  • Some groups use illegal activities, which result in damage and violence e.g ALF

Reasons for Pressure Group success

Although the Snowdrop Campaign is an obvious example it highlights how successful a pressure group can be in the face of a traumatic event. Superior lobbyists and more money enabled Devonport, not Rosyth to win the contract for maintenance and repairing of Trident submarines.

Other reasons include:

  • Support of the media, this is particularly important if sustained over a period of years
  • Proximity of an election and the potential votes an issue might win/lose
  • How united the pressure group is e.g. there are 6 teaching unions who don’t get on
  • Quality of the pressure group and its management and organization
  • Size and possible electorate impact of the membership

Pressure groups have grown as impact of political parties has perhaps declined and we have seen a number of high profile groups forming with differing levels of protest and success.

Pressure Groups and EU

Due to the changing nature of European Politics many pressure groups are based in Brussels or at least have a base their, but who do they target?

  • European Commission who draw up the proposal
  • Council of Ministers which agrees to it
  • European Parliament which can debate the issue and question the commission
  • European Court of Justice if required

The EU sees pressure groups as important to the overall decision making process and have become institutionalized, unlike in the UK.

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