Are Pressure Groups good for democracy?

While pressure groups are seen as an important part of the democratic process. Opinions are divided as to whether they enhance or damage democracy

Ways in which pressure groups enhance democracy

Ways in which pressure groups do not support democracy

Pluralist democracy or elitist?

Pluralist theorists see pressure groups as an essential part of democracy.  On the other hand those who argue that democracy is open to the power of elites are critical of pressure groups and claim that they weaken or undermine the democratic process.

How do pressure groups promote democracy?

Pluralists argue that pressure groups  supplement electoral democracy (making up for its defects and limitations) and/or they may have replaced political parties as the main way in which people express their views and interests.

 Pressure groups keep governments in touch with public opinion between elections. One of the weaknesses of elections is that they only take place every few years. By contrast, pressure groups force the government to engage in an ongoing dialogue with the people, in which the interests or views of the various sections of society cannot be ignored. Strikes, protests and campaigns can influence or alter government policy. For example-The government backed down after the Gurkha Justice Campaign  2009 successfully changed the the government's policy and allowed retired Gurkhas to settle in the UK. Gurkhas

A campaign led led by Jamie Oliver in 2005 when he fronted a campaign for healthier school meals, called ‘Feed Me Better.' A petition collected 271,677 signatures, and was then delivered to No 10 Downing Street on 30 March 2005. The campaign became front page news and government announced a massive cash injection for school meals. 

Former cricket star Sir Ian Botham has gave his support to the Countryside Alliance in its dispute with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) over the issue of whether shooting birds is good for conservation.

Pressure groups give a political voice to minority groups and articulate concerns that are overlooked by political parties. Elections, at best, determine the general direction of government policy, with parties being anxious to develop policies that appeal to the mass of voters. Pressure groups are there­fore often more effective in articulating concerns about issues such as the environment, civil liberties, global poverty, abortion, violence against women and the plight of the elderly. AllOut - a pressure group working for international LGBT rights - produce online petitions, YouTube videos and stage events such as flash mobs,  


It is argued that pressure groups encourage participation which is important for the health of democracy.  If this is the case, declining electoral turnout and steadily falling party membership is an indication of a 'democratic deficit' in  the UK . However,  pressure groups offer an alternative method of participation.  Single-issue politics is increasingly popular and the decentralised organization of many campaigning groups have brought many young people and those who may be disillu­sioned with conventional politics back in to active 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- globalisation 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. 

However, 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,  and sitting on committees,).

Political activism may 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. This has been called 'lifestyle’ politics, or ‘politics lite’ where political activism becomes a fashion statement.

While many people will feel they are ‘participating’ in this way, their level of engagement is usually superficial. So it appears that there is more participation but the commitment and involvement is very shallow. 


Pressure groups promote political debate, discussion and argument. In so doing, they create a better-informed and more educated electorate. This, in turn, helps to improve the quality of public policy. Without pressure groups, the public and the media would have to rely on a relatively narrow range of political views, those expressed by the government of the day and a small number of major parties. Pressure groups challenge established views and conventional wisdom. They offer alternative viewpoints and widen the information available to the public, especially through their access to the mass media and the use of `new' communications technology such as the Internet.  In many cases, pressure groups raise the quality of political debate by introducing specialist knowledge and greater expertise.

Case study Revolving door UK Greensill and David Cameron 

Can’t pay, won’t pay Soaring costs have given rise to a civil disobedience movement 2022

Shortly after the 2015 General Election, a new pressure group called Act for the Act was established to raise awareness about the importance of the Human Rights Act (1998). The group is opposed to the Conservative Government’s plans to replace the Act with a new British Bill of Rights. In the months following the 2015 election, the group began a media campaign that told the stories of citizens who believe that the Act has been essential in upholding their human rights. The group hopes that these examples will balance the more controversial human rights cases that often attract media attention. The Act for the Act campaign raises a number of useful points when considering the functions of pressure groups - particularly the extent to which they help to educate the public on issues that they might otherwise not be exposed to, and the extent to which they encourage political participation. Act for the Act hopes that their campaign will “Fill a gap by reaching out to all members of the public, many of whom… do not read the newspapers which print positive human rights stories.” In recent years, newspapers have given considerable coverage to controversial human rights cases, particular those that deal with the human rights of terrorists and convicted criminals. However, Act for the Act argues that the media has not given the same attention to the “everyday people and families who in times of great distress and difficulty suddenly needed the Human Rights Act.” 

However, PG's can be accused of using social media to spread exaggerated or misleading views. The Brexit Campaign asserted that 350 million per week would return to the NHS. There is no guarantee that pressure groups will tell the truth or present a balanced argument. In a bid to gather support or increase publicity, pressure groups may oversimplify complex issues and mislead the public. This may be described as ‘clicktivism’,  rather than  genuine engagement in complex concerns.  Is the act of clicking ‘like’ on a Facebook page, retweeting, using hashtags, or signing e-petitions really understand the issues? Social media campaigns are often short lived, so there is no guarantee that any real difference or quality of debate can be achieved through these channels. In January 2017, over 1.8 million people signed an e-petition attempting to stop US President Donald Trump from meeting with the Queen during an official State Visit. Critics argued that the ensuing debate was a waste of Parliament’s time. 

Benefits of competition

Pressure groups help to promote democracy by widening the distribution of polit­ical power. They do this, in part, because groups compete against one another. This ensures that no group or interest can remain dominant permanently. As pluralists would argue, there is no such thing as a 'power elite'. Instead, as one group becomes influential, other groups come into existence to combat them and offer rival viewpoints. This is what pluralists call the theory of 'countervailing power'. Trade unions developed in response to the growth of business power. Pro-abortion groups vie against anti-abortion groups. And so on. In this way, public policy is developed through an ongoing debate between rival groups that ensures that polit­ical influence is widely and evenly dispersed. Group politics is therefore character­ized by a rough balance of power. This is the essence of pluralist democracy. Hacked-Off is a pressure group that represents many victims of phone hacking and campaigns for reforms to press regulation. Members include academics, politicians and celebrities like the actor Hugh Grant, angered by their experiences with the tabloid press and having their phones hacked. They can be seen to be countering the power of the tabloid press.

By providing functional representation, pressure groups help to prevent a ‘tyranny of the majority’. In a democracy, the majority has tremendous power. Political parties need to win over the majority of voters, and are likely to adopt causes and positions that have their support. This can lead to a tyranny of the majority, in which minorities are overlooked and underrepresented, as they lack popular support. Organised pressure groups are vital for giving minority groups a voice. The parties might be unwilling to support unpopular causes, such as the rights of suspected terrorists, but pressure groups like ‘Liberty’ are willing to lobby, or perhaps take legal action, on their behalf. In September 2017, attention was drawn to the welfare of prisoners, after pressure groups like Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust, bought attention to the rising rates of suicide within UK prisons. With their greater experience and organisation, pressure groups can ensure that their views are considered. 

Pressure group expertise can be vital for ensuring proper scrutiny of the government. “Efficiency” is not just simply a question of the speed at which legislation is implemented, but the quality of that legislation. The government, and various parliamentary select committees, regularly consult a wide number of pressure groups because they recognise that their input is necessary in order for policy and legislation to miss dangerous pitfalls and unintended, negative consequences. Without the research and expertise that pressure groups, such as the BMA, provide to government, legislation might also be slower as they would lack the data and information needed to make decisions. Direct action might hold up the government, but, for outsider groups, it might be the only way that they can raise valuable arguments. In January 2016, the former Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced a U-turn on planned cuts to legal aid following legal challenges. Lawyers argued that had the Government listened to legal professionals in the first place, money would not have been wasted on a now abandoned scheme 

How do pressure groups threaten democracy?

Political inequality

A central argument against the pluralist image of group politics is that, far from dispersing power more widely and empowering ordinary citizens, pressure groups tend to empower the already powerful. They, therefore, increase, rather than reduce, political inequality. Pluralists argue that political inequality is broadly democratic, in that the most successful groups tend to be ones with large member­ship, and which enjoy wide and possibly intense public support. This is very diffi­cult to sustain. In practice, the most powerful pressure groups tend to be the ones that possess money, expertise, institutional leverage and privileged links to government. What is more, some pressure groups are much more powerful than others. For instance, the influence of major corporations cannot, in most cases, be compared with the influence exerted by, say, a trade union, a charity or an envi­ronmental group. Pressure groups, therefore, strengthen the voice of the wealthy and privileged, giving those who have access to financial, educational, organiza­tional and other resources special influence over the government.

By the same token, there are significant, and sometimes large, sections of society that are effectively excluded from the pressure-group universe. This is usually because they are difficult or impossible to organize and so must, at best, rely on others to protect them. Examples of such groups include children, asylum seekers, the homeless, the elderly and the mentally ill.

Corperations Good or Bad?

Big business  is constantly in contact and consultation with government and its departments. Businesses carry considerable weight, not least in terms of providing jobs and paying tax. In an increasingly globalised economy, multinationals can threaten to move factories and jobs outside the UK. For example, during Brexit, motor manufacturers lobbied the government for a trade deal that would retain most elements of the single market. During the COVID-19 crisis, business groups lobbied the government for a freeze on tax payments including national insurance and VAT. 

Although a powerful force, corporations do not always get their own way. For example, in the March 2020 budget the government announced it was going ahead with a 2% digital sales tax on the UK revenues of search engines, social media services and online marketplaces, despite opposition from powerful corporations such as Google and Amazon. However, some businesses, including shop-based retailers, supported the move in the belief it levelled the playing field — traditional retailers had long complained they were unfairly burdened by High Street overheads such as business rates. In addition, many big corporations have themselves become the target of pressure groups, especially those associated with environmental and ethical issues. For example, Barclays announced its intention in 2020 to become a ‘net-zero bank’ by 2050 following pressure from shareholders including the Church of England. The shareholder resolution was filed by the campaign group ShareAction.

Non-legitimate power

On what basis do pressure groups exert influence? Critics have questioned whether pressure groups exercise rightful or legitimate power in any circum­stances. This is because, unlike conventional politicians, pressure-group leaders have not been elected. Pressure groups are therefore not publicly accountable, meaning that the influence they exert is not democratically legitimate. This problem is compounded by the fact that very few pressure groups operate on the basis of internal democracy. Leaders are very rarely elected by their members, and when they are (as in the case of trade unions) this is often on the basis of very low turnouts. Indeed, there has been a growing trend for pressure groups to be domi­nated by a small number of senior professionals. Some pressure-group leaders may, in fact, be little more than self-appointed political spokespeople.

'Behind the scenes' influence

Tufton Steet The UK's 'K' Street 


Regardless of which groups are most powerful, pressure group influence is exerted in a way that is not subject to scrutiny and public accountability. Pressure groups usually exert influence 'behind closed doors'. This particularly applies in the case of insider groups, whose representatives stalk the (corridors of power' unseen by the public and away from media scrutiny. No one knows (apart from occasional leaks) who said what to whom, or who influenced whom, and how. This is unac­countable power. Not only does this contrast sharply with the workings of repre­sentative bodies such as Parliament, but it also diminishes Parliament and undermines parliamentary democracy. Insider links between groups and the exec­utive bypass Parliament, rendering elected MPs impotent as policy is increasingly made through deals between government and influential groups that the House of Commons does not get to discuss. Lobbyists are far from neutral. They exist to promote a particular interest.

Sometimes called lobby groups, they are also described as public relations companies or public affairs agencies. They operate round EU institutions, Westminster, central government departments and devolved administrations, hoping to further the cause of those who employ them. Very often they employ former politicians who know their way around access points and can offer personal contacts in the political system. In the USA this is called 'the revolving door'.

Sock Puppet Pressure Groups

Not all pressure groups have the same resources or status. Elite theory argues that wealthy insider groups, who can afford to hire professional lobbyists, are likely to have a better chance of presenting their evidence, and it may not be fair and balanced. Wealthier groups may try to exploit “the revolving door” - the movement of legislators and civil servants out of the doors of government departments, only to return as lobbyists on behalf of industries wishing to influence those departments. Furthermore, groups in policy communities and issue networks can often shape the important decisions before they even reach Parliament and the public. 

Tyranny of the minority

 While it is true that  pressure groups promote the interests or cause of  minority groups, not all minorities have the same resources. While pressure groups can give a voice to poorer, less powerful  groups, they can also the give exaggerated influence to powerful elites.  This is referred to as the tyranny of the minority’, or the tail wagging the dog, in which a small elite has an unfair level of influence over the government. Wealthy groups can use their financial strengths to hire those who can provide them with access. For pluralists, of course, this is one of their strengths. Pressure groups help to prevent a 'tyranny of the majority' that is, perhaps, one of the inevitable features of electoral democracy. However, pressure groups may create the opposite problem. Minority views or 'special' interests may prevail at the expense of the interests of the majority or the larger public. Therefore, as pressure groups become more powerful, elected governments may find it more difficult to serve the public interest and to do what is best for society as a whole. The strikes by junior doctors in 2015 and 2016 may be seen as undemocratic for groups to try to force their agenda on the rest of the country. This problem of the 'tyranny of the minority' is most extreme when pressure groups use direct action to achieve their objectives. Through the use of strikes, blockades and even intimidation and violence pressure groups, in effect, 'hold the country to ransom'. Once pressure groups start to operate outside the established legal and constitutional framework they are also operating outside — and arguably against — the democratic process. e.g the Fuel Protests 2000

Hyper Pluralism

Mostly a term used in the USA - it means that interest groups can create a confusing and self cancelling environment where the possibility for genuine debate of progress is lost- the kind of atmosphere where everyone is shouting so the argument breaks down. This sometime appears in the 'balanced' media which presents two sides to every argument which tend to suggest there are no right answers.