Comparison: Pressure Groups UK & USA

Although pressure groups in the UK and USA use similar methods, electioneering, endorsing, lobbying and organising grassroots activities, protesting and fund raising, there is huge difference between the environments in which they opperate.  The constitutional  structure of American politics and government means that pressure groups in the USA have far more opportunity for influence than do their counterparts in the UK.


 There  are far more elective posts in the USA than in the UK, which means far more opportunities for pressure groups to exert influence through the electoral process. The separatation of institutiions as well as the federal structure mean there are direct presidental elections, separate congressional elections and elections at state an local levels. When this is coupled with a culture of democratic participation which allows Americans to select candidates in primary elections  and first amendment rights which have been used to expand the influence of money in elections, it means that pressure groups in the USA  can influence elections in ways which are not possible in the UK.

Things Pressure groups can do in the USA which are not possible in the UK

In 2010 the Supreme Court expanded the ability of pressure groups to raise and spend money in elections in Citizens United v FEC. This decision resulted in the formation of Super PACs.

Trade unions

At first sight the relationship between unions and parties appears similar in the USA and UK. For historic and cultural reasons the unions movenemt in the UK has strong links with the Labour Party and  labour unions in the USA have been supporters of the Democratic Party. However, unions were never as influential in the Democratic Party as they have been in the Labour  Party.. In the UK, most Labour MPs have some formal link — either through membership or donations — to a trade union. For example, well over half of Labour MPs in the Parliament elected in 2015 had links with the super-union Unite. Indeed, before the election, Unite had a campaign to secure safe Labour seats for candidates affiliated to it. 

The influence of unions in both countries has declined since the mid 20th Century, but unions in the USA never had the kind of influence they had in the UK. In both countries, labour and trade union membership is down from its peaks in the 1970s. In the UK, for example, trade union membership fell from 13 million in 1979 to just over 7 million by 2000, and is now under 6 million. In the USA, labour unions peaked in the 1950s. But American unions never managed to unionise anywhere near the proportion of the workforce which their British counterparts achieved. 

The fact that the UK Labour Party was born out of the trade union movement means that the relationship between unions and Labour is far stronger than the relationship between  organised labour and the Democrats.

Business  groups and corporations

In the UK business groups have strong financial links with the Conservative Party and in the USA business groups will tend to favour the Repubicans, but as  the very high levels of incumbency in US congressional elections suggest American pressure groups tend to give their money overwhelmingly to incumbents of either main party and not to challengers. In the  USA  the rule is 'Money flows to the winners'


Lobbying forms and important part of pressure groups activity in the USA and in the UK, however significant structural differences open up more opportunities for pressure groups in the USA than in the UK. The separation of powers and federal structure mean the are simply many more access points in the USA where lobbying can be effective. 

Party disciplined and a fused legislature and executive means that  the British Parliament is a much more controlled and disciplined body  than the US Congress. Operating, as they usually do, under the tight constraints imposed by party whips, MPs are rarely swayed by the pleadings of groups if questions of a party political nature are involved. They may occasionally be persuaded to raise a question in the House, perhaps to pursue a point through written questions but this almost never changes the result of a vote and or alters the content of a bill if the government is opposed to the alteration.

 The famous observation that in the USA 'all politics is local' holds true since  most pressure groups have learned that the surest way to influence members of Congress is through their constituents. Therefore groups follow a dual strategy: going public and going Washington. which means they directly lobby in Washington and conduct campaigns among the public. Nothing gets the attention of a congressman more that a spike in emails or letters form voters in their constituency. In the UK an MP knows their personal popularity will nor ensure their re-election they will win or lose according to the voter's perception of their party. In the UK, as far as the House of Commons is concerned, 'all politics is national'

The House of Lords has always been a weak chamber with limited reasons for pressure groups to focus their activities on peers but in recent years, with the House of Lords  has become more the focus of pressure group activity, as peers are not whipped to toe the party line and sice the reforms of the 1990s no party has an overall majority. The removal of most hereditary peers has also led to a culture of professionalism and increased policy expertise which means they are more open to persuasive pressure groups with a well researched cause.  

The Executive

The dominance of the government in UK politics means that insider pressure groups who have a strong relationship with the government are the most successful. Insiders tend to pursue policy development with a particular  government department which is most relevant to their cause. These policy relationships are similar to the clientelism found in the USA where pressure focus on the appropriate congressional committee  or executive department or agency. 

The main structural difference — the separation of powers and checks and balances in the USA, as opposed to the fusion of powers and the dominance of the government in the UK — is the most important factor that affects the different ways pressure groups operate in the two countries.


The significant difference the way pressure groups lobby the judiciary in the USA and the UK is because of the difference in political importance of the two judiciaries which is the result of another structural difference; the codification and entrenchment of the constitution in the USA. In any country with a codified constitution  and a judiciary which acts as arbiter of the meaning and scope of the constitution (which tends to result from codification) the judiciary become more powerful, more political and the focus of more pressure group activity. 

 One way in which this is shown is the time, money and energy that groups in the USA spend in lobbying the state and federal courts, given the power and influence of the judiciary in both levels of government. Pressure groups in the USA have a a role in  lobbying the Supreme Court and of being  the instigator  of many landmark decisions on equal rights for racial minorities, abortion, religious freedoms and freedom of speech.  See amicus briefs  The power of the courts and the possibility of making a decision which might change the courts of history mean that the judiciary are of huge significance to the strategy of pressure groups in the USA. 

In the UK, where the courts and the UK Supreme Court  must operate within a constitutional structure dominated by the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, and which lacks a codified, entrenched constitution, there is no  tradition of lobbying of the judiciary.  However, the new Supreme Court and the Human Rights Act as well as an emerging rights culture in the UK judiciary has led to an increase in pressure group activity particularly in the use of judicial review, but this can never have the far reaching significance of such cased in the USA.

Going public

Pressure groups in the USA and UK  use grassroots activities or direct appeals to public opinion as an important method of influence. In the UK, where political parties are seen as more disciplined and dominant, this often means organising publicity, and advertising petitions and events or demonstrations. 

There are pressure groups in the UK and pressure groups in the US only in the the US their vices and virtues are writ large.

However in both systems, pressure group success will be determined largely by the same factors. The different structural landscape means that pressure groups in the USA will have more opportunities for influence and success than in the UK and it may be that the positive and negative influence of pressure groups on democracy may be more obvious in the USA than in the UK.