Are pressure groups becoming more significant?

Why have they become more important?

The growth of promotional groups.

One argument which is used to suggest their increased importance is the huge increase in the number of promotional or cause groups. Over half the cause groups now in existence have been created since 1960, and the membership of many leading pressure groups dwarfs that of contemporary political parties. The RSPB, with over 1 million members, has a membership larger than the combined memberships of the main three parties. The National Trust is the largest voluntary organization in Europe, with a membership of 3.4 million. Linked to this has been the appeal of the new politics', character­ized by greater political activism and the spread of grass-roots participation. `New' types of political participation include political protest and what has been called cyberactivism. Examples of the politics of protest include the activities of left-wing movements such as CND, the 1990 anti-poll tax riots, anti-globalization demonstrations in Seattle (1999), London (2000) and Genoa (2001) and student protest in 2010 against university tuition fees. However, protest politics has also come to be embraced by right-wing move­ments, such as the People's Fuel Lobby and the Countryside Alliance.



As the importance of parties has declined. Membership of parties has fallen dramatically, as have voting turnouts, and the ordinary members of parties now have relatively little influence over the policy-making process. But membership of pressure groups has been growing. So, too, have their activities. Social and political research indicates strongly that political participation and a general interest in politics is not declining as statistics might suggest. Rather, the nature of interest and participation is changing. The large numbers of non-voters and apparently disillusioned non-participants (concentrated among the young) have shifted their political awareness away from party politics in favour of specific political issues. Clearly, pressure groups provide a more appropriate vehicle for such interest than do parties. The graph below suggests concern for environmental issues has increased as membership of parties has declined.

Access points

Pressure groups now have many more 'access points' to the decision-making institutions than has been true in the past. It used to be the case that pressure groups concentrated the vast majority of their efforts on government ministers, civil servants and their advisers, or on Parliament. But decision making in Britain today has tended to become spread over a much wider range of institutions. This process has four facets:

· the importance of the European Union,

· devolution of power to national regions,

· the growth of policy-making bodies outside the traditional party system

· mobilisation of public opinion via the media and / or the internet, and

· the increasing importance of the courts as a result of the passage of the Human Rights Act.

The European Union

The increasing importance of the EU has meant that many groups have switched many of their activities to European institutions such as the European Commission, the Committee of the Regions, the Social and Economic Committee and various other Union institutions whose task it is to develop policy. At the same time, the European Parliament is becoming more influential. Therefore, lobby groups have sent increasing numbers of representatives to the Parliament and its committees. As of January 2020, there were 11 882 organisations on the register, of which 7 526 people are accredited to the Parliament. Registration is mandatory to obtain a lobbyist's badge to access the European Parliament. In 2000, about 2,600 interest groups had a permanent office downtown Brussels, of which European trade federations comprise about a third, commercial consultants a fifth, companies, European NGOs (e.g., in environment, health care or human rights) and national business or labour associations each about 10%, regional representations and international organisations each about 5%, and, finally, think tanks about 1%.

Groups increasingly unite with their European counterparts if they are to exert effective pressure. So we have seen the development of an increasing number of 'federated' groups in Europe. All major trade unions, producer groups and environmental campaign organisations, for example, have developed their own European-wide institutions. The brief list of examples of European pressure and interest groups shown below gives a flavour of the range of issues being treated in this way:

· The European Automobile Manufacturers' Association

· Friends of the Earth Europe

· Association of Electricity Producers

· European Fair Trade Association

· European Mine, Chemical and Energy Workers' Federation

· European Small Business Alliance

· Association of Commercial Television in Europe

· European Association for the Defence of Human Rights.


Devopution opened up more opportunities for lobbying the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments. The main policy areas that have been devolved are health, education, transport, planning, industrial development, agriculture and local government services. Pressure groups that are involved in these policy areas have naturally been forced to move some of their operations to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The career of Raymond Robertson. who was a minister in the Scotland Office under John Major between 1995 and 1997. After losing his Aberdeen South seat in 1997, he became the chair of the Scottish Conservative Party. After failing to return to parliament in Eastwood in 2001, he set up an Edinburgh-based lobbying agency called Halogen Communications. The firm’s clients now include the world’s seventh biggest arms company, Airbus, tobacco firm, Philip Morris, the short-term letting agency, Airbnb, and food and drink giant, Nestlé.

Think Tanks

Think tanks, policy units, private advisers and working parties have the task of feeding policy options into the government machinery. Pressure groups have a vital interest in becoming involved in the early stages of policy consideration. The main way in which they can achieve this is by employing professional lobbyists who have the experisein working with policy-making institutions. Professional lobbyists undertake the task of identifying the key decision makers, securing contacts with them and ensuring that the information that a pressure group wishes to disseminate finds the appropriate targets.

The Human Rights Act

Passed in 1998 and brought the European Convention on Human Rights into British law in 2000. Its effect was to reinforce and introduce a wide range of rights, many of which were designed to protect minority interests. Since many pressure and interest groups represent such minorities, the Act provided many new opportunities for them to assert their interests. By applying to the courts, a minority group may be able to seek a judgment that protects it from oppressive legislation. The human rights campaign group, Liberty, for example, has been especially active in this judicial field since the passage of the Act, as have environment groups. At the start of the 2000s, Liberty used the protections in the new Human Rights Act 1998 to fight a number of landmark cases, including supporting terminally-ill Diane Pretty's fight to die with dignity and Christine Goodwin's fight for transgender rights.Save our Human Rights Act

Direct action

Traditionally insider pressure groups were seen to have a clear advantage in gaining the attention of policy and decision makers over outsider groups. This was because they had direct access, were generally felt to be more responsible in their demands and had developed long-term links with government and Parliament. This is changing,

Groups now feel that they can exert as much pressure on governments by mobilising public opinion than by pursuing direct links with decision makers. Modern governments are responsive to mass political movements — nearly always outsiders — provided they can demonstrate widespread support. The Countryside Alliance has found this, as have old-age pensioner groups, development aid campaigners and environmentalists. Direct action, when properly organised and well supported, is growing in importance.

The UK uncut movement started in 2010, have succeeded in raising awareness on tax dodging and on the existing alternatives to austerity measures. Before UK uncut few talked about tax dodging as an issue and now this topic has become a core debate in UK politics. “UK uncut is a movement taking non-violent direct action against cuts to UK public services, against austerity measures, and particularly to focus the attention on tax dodging companies”. That’s how Adam Ramsay defined UK uncut, a movement whose tactic has been to organise peaceful occupations of tax dodgers’ businesses in quite humorous ways and linking their tax dodging to a public service that is being cut.

The worldwide media coverage given to the vandalism of the Cereal Killer Café is an interesting example for the debate over the factors that influence pressure group success. Many outsider pressure groups aspire to become insiders for the opportunities that come with the status. But Class War is an ideological outsider, the group not only chooses not to work inside the political system, but uses controversial methods that make it impossible for political parties to associate with them. As an outsider, the group must try to either mobilise public support for their issue, or take direct action to pressure others to give into their demands. The owner of the Cereal Killer Café said that the protesters had been clever to target their café as “An attack on a bank would be another attack on a bank but they knew if they went for us they would get media attention.” Despite lacking significant financial resources, or a large membership, Class War was able to get its march through London into newspapers around the world, simply by throwing some paint at the shop window of a controversial cafe. The vandalism sparked numerous discussions in the media about gentrification in London, and the impact that rising house prices are having upon the capitals poorest residents. If the group’s aim was to simply get people talking, then direct action can be said to have achieved its goal.

Digital democracy

Pressure groups now rely heavily on the internet for publicity, gaining support and placing pressure on decision makers. The main features are these:

· Other e-petitions can put pressure on MPs to debate important issues.

It is possible to initiate and organise campaigns quickly and efficiently.

· Social, community and campaign networks can be built up to reach all interested parties.

· Virtually all pressure groups, both interest groups and promotional groups, insiders and outsiders, use the internet to reinforce their activities.

Direct Action

The vandalism of the Cerial Killer Cafe is also a reminder that direct action can be both peaceful and criminal, raising the question of whether pressure groups are good for democracy. On one hand, pressure groups can give a voice to a minority group that would otherwise go unheard. When Class War fielded seven candidates in the 2015 General Election, they received only 526 votes combined, meaning that electorally, the group’s supporters are unlikely to make an impact. But, on the other hand, the use of direct action can arguably lead to a ‘tyranny of the minority’, with a particular interest group attempting to force their demands on the government, and others, by disrupting public services or private businesses, even though they have only limited public support. Only around 200 people attended the Class War protest, and it was only a small group of protesters that participated in the vandalism. Yet this small group of people was able to attract considerable attention and effectively had a disproportionately loud voice because of their methods. Critics argue that such direct action is not only criminal, but to respond to it would also undermine our representative democracy.

Millions of British citizens consider themselves to be detached from the political process. There has been growing disillusionment with traditional party politics, fewer people than ever bother to vote in elections and party membership has been falling steadily. But there is a different perspective that we can adopt. In terms of participation in pressure groups and new social movements.Not everyone believes that pressure groups have become more impor­tant. Some even talk in terms of the decline in pressure-group power in recent years. Such arguments are usually based on one of two developments:

Reasons why pressure groups may not be more effective

The end of corporatism. For some, the high point of pressure-group influence came in the 1970s. This was a period of so-called tripartite government or corpo­ratism. A particularly close relationship developed between the government and the leading 'peak' groups, notably the CBI and the TUC. Economic policy was therefore developed through a process of routine consultation and group bargaining. However, corporatism was dismantled in the 1980s and it has never been re-established. The Thatcher government came to power in 1979 with a strong suspicion of the trade unions in particular and of organized interests in general. As a result, it adopted an arm's length approach to group consultation. Although Thatcher's strident anti-corporatism ended with her fall, the free-market ideas that have dominated all subsequent governments have discouraged them from returning to the practice of 'beer and sandwiches at Number 10'.

A decline in meaningful and active participation. An alternative explanation of the decline of pressure groups challenges the idea that recent years have witnessed an upsurge in group activity. This suggests that while group membership may have increased, these members have become increasingly passive. This is the phenomenon of 'chequebook participation'. Members of pressure groups (and political parties, for that matter) are happy to pay their subscriptions, but have little interest in wider activism (attending meetings, participating in conferences, sitting on committees). This may be a consequence of the decline in 'social capital'. Political activism is therefore increasingly confined to a small class of full-time professionals. Such trends may also apply to protest politics. Although large numbers of people may, at different times, be attracted to marches and demonstrations, this seldom leads to longer-term political involvement or commitment. It is a form of 'lifestyle' politics, or 'politics lite'