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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Pressure groups

Unit 1: People and Politics
by Hugh Berrington
The Professor Emeritus at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne writes for BBC Parliament

Countryside Alliance march, 2002
The Countryside Alliance is one example of a pressure group

Political parties, as we have seen are a link between people and the state.

There is, however, a second link, the pressure group, which must often, to the ordinary citizen, seem more important than the political party.

Parties have a multiple appeal and are concerned with broad policies, covering a range of issues.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION: Unit 1 - People and Politics

Pressure groups, however, are much narrower, campaigning either for a single issue, or for minor, often technical changes.

Such changes may be of great importance to their members but both boring and incomprehensible to everyone else.

Parties and pressure groups, then, differ in scope and in the breadth of their appeal. A second, more important distinction is that whilst parties aim to achieve power, or a share of power, by winning control over the organs of government, pressure groups do not act to gain power itself but to influence those who have power.

Pressure groups, therefore, do not fight elections but campaign for their objectives in a number of different ways.

Pressure groups are often divided into Sectional groups and Cause groups, the former also being known as Interest groups. Sectional or Interest groups exist to defend and promote the material interests of their members.

Trades unions, and trade associations are examples, together with groups such as the National Farmers' Union. Cause groups, as the name indicates exist to promote a cause which has nothing to do with members' material welfare.

Such groups campaign for a cause: nuclear disarmament, the abolition of blood sports, restictions on abortion, are all examples of the policies Cause groups strive to achieve.

One basic distinction is between Insider and Outsider groups. Insider groups are those which develop close relationships with government departments or other official bodies.

They are trusted by the departments and negotiate quietly, unobtrusively for their members - often on issues which most citizens would not recognise or understand.

Outsider groups lack such close and business-like links with government.

Lacking recognition from the top, they will seek to convert and mobilise public opinion, often using demonstrations and rallies.

Outsider groups often attract more attention in the press and from citizens than Insider groups - but that is usually a sign of their weakness.

Like political parties, pressure groups are often attacked for distorting the democratic process.

It is true that pressure group activity confers advantages on wealthy, well-organised and well connected groups, and those able to inflict sanctions on government by withdrawing their cooperation.

Yet, as with parties, their contribution to democratic life is indispensable. Dealing as they often do with narrow and specialised issues they are a vital channel between the governed and the governors.

The task of governing a nation of nearly 60 million people, and ensuring some conformity between popular wishes and government decisions, is enormous in its complexity.

To many, especially those at the 'receiving end' of government decisions it must often seem as though politicians and civil servants follow their own agenda without reference to the people's wishes.

Looking at that task, though, from a more detached vantage point it seems that, as with a dog dancing, the wonder is not that it sometimes seems to be done badly but that it is done at all.

Prof Hugh Berrington 2004
School of Geography, Politics and Sociology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


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