Government and Politics


Pressure Groups in the UK

Wyn Grant

Freedom of association is a fundamental principle of democracy. Is it a threat or an aid to democratically elected governments?

Those with a cammon interest or shared cause are entitled to band together and press their case to decision-makers in government or Parliament. Traditional pluralist accounts of democracy did not see such activity as a threat to democracy, and the presence of largenumbers of interest groups was seen as a sign of the health of a democratic system. Indeed, only authoritarian systems of government sought to organise and control categories of interest that might be a potential threat to their survival, either through corporatist arrangements in other right-wing authoritarian regimes or through party organisations in Communist regimes.


Pluralists believed that competing interests balanced each other out. For each interest, there was a countervailing interest putting an opposing point of view, for example, employer interests were counterbalanced by trade unions. There were multiple points of access to the political system for all these competing interests and government acted as an umpire or arbiter between them (Box 1).

Problems with the pluralist model

In many respects these theoretical accounts presented an idealised version of the UK political system. These classic pluralist accounts were undermined in several ways. First, it has been pointed out that business had particular advantages as an interest because governments could only achieve economic success on which their re-election depended with business cooperation. Second, the pressure group universe was more limited than was assumed because one could ‘free ride’ on the concessions obtained by government from a group without being a member. Business groups were particularly easy to organise, because they often had small memberships where the failure of one potential member to join would affect the group’s ability to extract concessions from government.

More recently, there has been renewed interest in the contribution of groups to the political process. Some of this is a revival of long-standing concerns about ‘lobbying’, that is, securing influence in improper ways, such as the payment of money for consultancy services — certain events have suggested that the House of Lords is not as well regulated in this respect as the House of Commons. Important though these issues are, the focus of this article is broader: it looks at the contribution of pressure groups to the overall health of the democratic system.

Pressure groups and representation

One of the principal arguments in favour of pressure groups is that they allow a more continuous and calibrated representation to governments of the views of concerned publics. Elections are held every 4 years or so. They represent the expression of a general preference, often nothing more than a vote against the party in office or for a political leader. Even if a citizen’s vote is an expression of a broad policy preference, it is of a general kind, because the voter is unlikely to agree with all of a party’s policies: it does not capture intensity of feeling on a particular issue. Pressure groups are able to represent more fine-grained views than political parties and hence keep government in touch both with the range of public opinion and shifts in it. New public concerns are often propelled on to the policy agenda by the activities of pressure groups and in that way political debate is constantly refreshed and renewed.

Fifty years ago Britain was a homogeneous society, in which the only significant social divisions were on class lines. Most people could be assigned to a social class that influenced their lifestyles and their voting behaviour. Since then British society has become more diverse and fragmented. Individuals can no longer be readily assigned to a social class category on the basis of parental occupation. Politics is more centred on identities that are chosen by the individual, and these identities are less readily expressed by political parties, particularly in a first-past-the- post system.

Pressure groups can represent very specific and narrowly defined interests or concerns. One consequence has been that the membership of political parties has declined rapidly and has been overtaken by that of pressure groups. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) now has more members than all the political parties combined.

An educative function

Although governments employ a wide range of specialists, pressure groups often have access to specialised information that the civil service does not possess. In particular, they may be able to identify flaws in the design of a particular policy that could have perverse and unintended consequences. In this way they can contribute to the quality of the policy-making process and help government to make decisions that are effective and can be implemented without leading to undesirable side effects.

The quality of pressure group participation

One claim in favour of pressure groups is that they provide a new means of involving citizens in the political process, enabling them to acquire political skills that they can deploy elsewhere. However, this claim does not stand up to close scrutiny.

The involvement of many citizens in pressure groups has been limited to what has been called a ‘cheque book membership’.

They join either to obtain selective incentives, such as reduced insurance available only to members of the group, or because they feel a broad identification with the causes the group is advancing. Indeed, both of these factors may be at work. Individuals may be attracted to join the RSPB because of the offer of a free nest box (the gift available to new members at the time of writing) but also because, as urban gardeners, they like to see bird populations maintained.

Many environmental groups are, in effect, well-marketed brands that enjoy more trust than many well-known commercial products. Their logos enjoy high levels of recognition. Many people like to display the logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature in their cars. The choice of the panda was inspired, because it is a threatened species perceived to be cuddly and vulnerable, although it is in fact a rather bad-tempered bear.

However, most pressure groups offer relatively few opportunities for participation. Although, even in their heyday, UK political parties were often dominated at local level by cliques presiding over tedious meetings preoccupied with questions of procedure, they did at least provide an opportunity for discussions of policy issues. Really enthusiastic members could attend training schools at which they would hear presentations by experienced politicians or even attend the party conference. In contrast, many pressure groups are structured in such a way as to limit membership participation. For example:

  • The leadership of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is elected indirectly, with county branches sending delegates to a national council which then elects the top officials; and

  • Greenpeace has supporters rather than members and is run on hierarchical lines, which no doubt contributes to its effectiveness.

Of course, pressure groups cannot ignore the views of their members altogether, because otherwise they would not renew their membership. They may, for example, survey their members from time to time, but this is a very limited form of participation and does not endow members with any new political skills.

Pressure groups thus do relatively little for the quality or quantity of political participation. Another concern is that they make government more difficult. Political parties have to aggregate demands. They have to bring them together in a package that sets priorities, given that the government budget and legislative time are finite. Pressure groups can simply articulate the raw demands of their members without taking any account of the opportunity cost for government spending or other programmes. This problem may have become more serious over time.


The changing face of UK pressure group activity

Phase 1: The postwar era

If we take the period from the end of the Second World War to around 1970, most pressure groups were either producer or professional groups. The cause groups that existed either organised those high up the social scale, like the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), or were made up of professionals with an interest in the particular subject, like the Howard League for Penal Reform. This meant that the range of interests and concerns represented was limited. However, bodies like the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) or the British Medical Association (BMA) did perform an aggregation function akin to that of political parties. They had to balance the interests of, say, dairy farmers against arable farmers, or junior hospital doctors against general practitioners. Above all, as ‘insider’ groups engaged in a continuous negotiating dialogue with government, they had some idea of what was possible for government and hence filtered out some member demands.


Phase 2: An age of transition

From around 1970 came the formation of a new generation of environmental, human rights and third world groups. However, organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace had a broad focus, while at the same time being selective about the campaigns they chose as priorities. Groups like Amnesty International and Oxfam entered into a dialogue with the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development respectively, and the third world organisations became trusted partners in the delivery of aid. All these groups were very much ‘other regarding’ in the sense that they were concerned with big, broadly based causes in which their members had no direct personal interest.


Phase 3: A new pressure group politics

Recent years have witnessed a growth in the number and impact of single-interest groups, advancing narrowly defined, self-regarding causes. A number of factors have helped their development. The growth of a multi-channel 24-hour media has increased the demand for news stories, particularly those that have emotional and visual appeal. The internet has made it cheaper for new groups to form, easier for them to attract members and provides a medium to mobilise them for protest actions. In this new electronic political space, groups can be formed on Facebook or can place electronic petitions on the 10 Downing Street website (


Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY) groups have been active for some time opposing new developments, such as probation hostels or airport expansions. Mobile telephone masts have also become a major focus for mobilisation, although it seems unlikely that those opposing them never use a mobile phone or those that oppose airport expansions never fly. They would just like it to be someone else’s problem.


Patient groups seeking the provision of expensive drugs for terminally ill patients have proliferated in recent years. They receive extensive coverage on regional news programmes and in local papers. What is not often realised is that some of these groups receive substantial support from pharmaceutical companies who want to sell expensive treatments to the National Health Service. It is far more effective to have a terminally illpatient make the case for you than the chief executive of a multinational company. However, the budget of the National Health Service is finite and, ultimately, more money spent on expensive drug treatments of uncertain value means less for elective surgery or the treatment of mental illness. (Some problems with pressure group activity are outlined in Box 2.)



This particular example raises a broader point about the nature of democracy itself. It has been seen as a rational, deliberative process in which competing arguments and cases are put forward and tested through debate, leading, eventually, to a policy decision. Indeed, this view has been strengthened in recent years by the emphasis on evidence-based policy-making and the use of devices such as citizens’ forums. For example, in terms of the price of drugs debate, the National Institute of Newer social movements provide a vehicle for the expression of feeling. Clinical Excellence (NICE) was supposed to inform decisions through a rational, quantitative assessment of the relative merits of different drugs.


An alternative argument would be that such approaches do not give sufficient weight to emotion as opposed to reason and that newer social movements provide a vehicle for the expression of feeling. Should this trend continue, government may find it more difficult to reconcile conflicting pressure group demands, which might lead to less effective government and a growing frustration with democracy itself.