Pressure Groups


Anti War Protest By Stop the War Coalition

What are pressure groups?

A pressure group is an organised group that seeks to influence government (public) policy or protect or advance a particular cause or interest.

Groups may promote a specific issue and raise it up the political agenda or they may have more general political and ideological objectives in mind when they campaign.

Pressure groups operate at: Local; Sub National (Regional); National and International level (including European Union)


Pressure Groups are different from Political Parties

(1) Different objectives

Parties seek representation and power through elections whereas pressure groups in the main seek political influence. Parties often focus on the national interest whereas groups may be concerned with sectional issues / single issues.

(2) Structure and organisation

In the main political parties are inherently more democratic. There are internal elections for the leadership and this is only sometimes the case with some pressure groups (most commonly trade unions).

(3) Size, resources and support

Political parties used to be mass membership vehicles. In the 1950s support for and membership of the main political parties was vast. Today the membership of political parties has significantly reduced in comparison. Pressure groups are much larger vehicles of political participation. The trade union movement for example boasts approximately 7.6m million members. Though, like parties membership is in decline, the number of trade unionists outnumbers the members of political parties by a ratio of about 20-1.


Political parties will employ traditional tactics of communication and campaigning which are seen as legitimate forms of expression. Pressure groups will also adopt the same tactics but many reserve the right to use protests and tactics of civil disobedience to put their points across. Pressure groups may also resort to deliberate law breaking.

(5) Success.

Political Parties enjoy, to a greater or lesser extent, some assurance of political success. Even the more fringe parties can lay claim to having achieved their aims. Plaid Cymru, the SNP, The Green Party, UKIP & the BNP have all experienced some limited forms of success, and for the first time since the National Government during the war the Liberal Democrats once again play a pivotal role in government.

The success of pressure groups is more difficult to judge. Pressure groups vary enormously in their ability to influence public policy. The major core insider groups  such as the CBI and the BMA will have vast (though often unseen) influence in terms of shaping policy. Outsider groups by contrast such as the Stop the War coalition will usually fail even with significant degrees of support. BY contrast the Gurkha’s successful campaign to settle in Britain had a high degree of public visibility.

There is inevitably some overlap in functions and roles of groups and parties!

Many smaller parties fight elections but have no realistic hope of achieving political power. They may in effect focus on a single issue and though they have a party label and may contest elections they are effectively more akin to pressure groups than they are to political parties.The Referendum Party was a single issue party, thus more closely resembling a pressure group than a conventional political party.

Some organizational and funding links between some groups and political parties

You will need to take into account both the similarities and differences between political parties and pressure groups.


Represent common interests of a particular section of society Membership is often closed / restricted Sectional groups seek to represent the majority of their particular group of members Members of the group often stand to gain personally from the success of their campaigns

Sectional groups might include; TUC, the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors, British Medical Association, Federation of Small Businesses, National Farmers Union, the Law Society.

Royal British Legion, Association of Radical Midwives, British Road Federation, Chambers of Commerce, Society of Motor Manufacturers, Magistrates Association, Chief Superintendants Association

Freight Transport Association, Country Landowners, Musicians Union, British Nuclear Test Veterans’, Association Royal College of Surgeons


Causal groups often promote a particular set of economic / politics objectives or ideas. These objectives may not be directly linked to the people who support / are actively involved with the group. Causal groups tend to have an open membership – seeking to gain a critical mass of popular support and campaigning strength.

It is important not to confuse mass membership with political influence – many small causal groups have significant political clout. Members of these causal groups are often driven by a very strong desire to initiate change or change society’s attitudes

Welfare Causal Groups

Shelter, Low Pay Unit, Child Poverty Action Group, National Association on Mental Health

Fair Trade, Action on Smoking & Health, LIBERTY, NACRO, Victims of Abortion

Age Concern, Prison Reform Trust, Outrage, War on Want

NSPCC, National AbortionCampaign, Families Need Fathers

Environmental Causal Groups

Greenpeace, FOE, Countryside Alliance, WWF, Campaign for Preservation of Rural England

Living Earth, Ramblers, Pedestrians Association, RSPB,

Compassion in World Farming, Reclaim the Streets, Transport 2000, British Trees Earth First

A distinction between insider and outsider pressure groups is also made. Within this distinction there are different types of insider and outsider

Functions of pressure groups

Pressure groups are a vital part of a healthy democracy. Indeed the sustained and rapid expansion of pressure group activity and involvement in the political process is often heralded as a sign of growing political involvement among many thousands of people. Among the role played by pressure groups, large and small, we can identify the following:

  • Promote discussion and debate and mobilise public opinion on key issues
  • Perform a role in educating citizens about specific issues
  • Groups can enhance democratic participation, pluralism and diversity
  • Groups raise and articulate issues that political parties perhaps won’t touch because of their sensitivity
  • They provide an important access point for those seeking redress of grievance
  • They represent minorities who cannot represent themselves
  • Groups can be an important and valuable source of specialist information / expertise for an overloaded legislature and civil service
  • Many groups play an important role in implementing changes to public policy
  • Pressure groups encourage a decentralisation of power within the political system. They act as a check and balance to the power of executive government

Groups can become involved in influencing and shaping public policy at many different points. For example, groups can seek to raise issues up the political agenda. This might speed up a process of political reform that might already be in the minds of the government or the opposition. Groups can be brought into the consultative process (see the distinction between insider and outside pressure groups) and may try to have an impact when a bill reaches the stage of Parliamentary drafting, debate and amendment. Finally as mentioned above, many groups are actively involved in implementing political decisions and evaluating their relative success or failure.


Pressure groups have an enormous range of tactics and strategies at their disposal which vary in their effectiveness. One way to examine these methods would be to look at the different classifications of pressure groups and see which tactics they have in common and which are distinct to each type of pressure group.

Insider Pressure groups Outsider Pressure groups
Remember first of all that there are three different categories of Insider Group. Wyn Grant, Politics Review, 1999 distinguished between:

  • The Core Insider Group
  • The Specialist Insider Group
  • The Peripheral Insider Group
Remember first of all that there are three different categories of Outsider Group. Wyn Grant, Politics Review, 1999 distinguished between:

  • The Potential Insider Group
  • The Outsider By Necessity Group
  • The Ideological Outsider Group

Many of the tactics used by Insider Groups are also shared by outsider groups. However there are some forms of pressure group activity that are beyond the scope of Insiders if they wish to retain their insider status! We cannot imagine the BMA dressing up as Batman and Robin and trespassing on Crown property in order to get a point across!

The Insider Group is, of course, characterised as having a closer set of relationships with policy and decision makers.They have:Frequent CONTACT with Government Ministers, Departments, The Civil Service, Policy Advisors to Senior Cabinet Members, Parliament and even the Prime Minister. The following Is a list of tactics that BOTH Insiders and Outsiders might adopt.Some Outsider Groups, will sometimes make use of the services of professional lobbyists, where they cannot hope to meet with ministers themselves
CONSULTATION with Government Ministers, Departments, The CivilService, Policy Advisors to Senior Cabinet Members, Parliament and even the Prime Minister. Some Outsider Pressure Groups are likely to be involved in Green Paper consultations
NEGOTIATIONS Government Ministers, Departments, The Civil Service, Policy Advisors to Senior Cabinet Members, Parliament and even the Prime Minister. Some Outsider Groups will make use of political advertising in order to promote their cause or defend their members’ interests. However, because advertising is expensive this tactic is heavily resource dependent.
Particular Pressure Groups will have PRIVILEGED ACCESS to particular departments. For example the British Medical Association will have access to Heath Department officials and Ministers and the Prison Officers Association, the Home Office. Occasionally the Pressure group will send an open letter to the newspapers in the hope of influencing both the public and the government. They may also seek to place an issue high up the political agenda through these means.
Some Insider Groups, with the exception of CORE Insider groups, will sometimes make use of the services of professional lobbyists With the same aims in mind they may arrange interviews with the broadcast media (radio and television). Though they are less likely to obtain access to the media they may still occasionally be granted an interview.
Insider Pressure Groups are likely to be involved in Green Paper consultations Potential insiders may have liaisons with Local Authorities devolved parliaments and assemblies and even the EU
Insider Groups will make frequent use of political advertising in order to promote their cause or defend their members’ interests. This may be done through newspapers or specialist magazines The following are methods used almost exclusively by Outsider Pressure Groups

  • Leafleting
  • Street Stalls and Petitions
  • Public Fund Raising and Donation


Insider Pressure Groups will seek to influence the public and the public policy agenda through press releases. Outsiders are often frustrated at the lack of government attention to their concerns. This may manifest itself in the form of demonstrations and marches as with the Stop the War coalition and the Countryside Alliance
Occasionally senior members of the Pressure group will send an open letter to the newspapers in the hope of influencing both the public and the government. They may also seek to place an issue high up the political agenda through these means. In 1983, at Greenham Common RAF base, women’s groups organized a peace camp to protest against  the arrival and stationing of cruise missiles.
With the same aims in mind they may arrange interviews with the broadcast media (radio and television). Groups wishing to exercise the right to roam have often used mass trespass on private property as a means of drawing attention to their cause.
Insider Pressure groups also have frequent contact and liaison with Quangos and Next Steps Agencies, the providers of public services. These also implement public policy. Decisions may not be influenced (though they nearly always are to some degree) but the implementation of these policies can still be influenced.Similarly Insider Pressure Groups will also liaise with Local Authorities, where there is a reason for doing so. The Fuel Protesters successfully used the tactic of blockading fuel depots, forcing the government into a review of the ‘fuel duty escalator’
Similarly Insider Pressure Groups will also liaise with the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, where there is a reason for doing so. Some groups such as the anti globalization protesters, Reclaim the Streets and the WOMBLES, have often used violent protest as a tactic in order to achieve maximum publicity.
Many Insider Pressure Groups are now increasingly aware that a large amount of directives emanate from the European Commission and have therefore established offices in Brussels. Occupy & Reclaim the Streets –  Use of Protest and disruption tactics with a wide variety of aims, but essentially to disrupt and (eventually!) bring down capitalism.

In all cases pressure groups will use a variety of methods, dependent upon their status, in order to influence public opinion, policy decisions and the decision makers themselves.


Sectional Pressure Groupsexist to advance or protect the (usually material and/ or economic) interest of its members. Sectional groups defend personal interests, have closed  membership (meaning only certain individuals may join) and it benefits members only. An example is the Unite trade union or the CBI.

Promotional Pressure Groupscause groups who are altruistic (don’t benefit themselves) and campaign on behalf of an issue. Open membership (anyone can join) – Charities (Oxfam, Save the Children) Environmental Groups (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Plane Stupid)

Welfare groups (Shelter, Child Poverty Action Group, Age Concern). Mostly but not exclusively outsiders.

Pluralism refers to the distribution and the diversification of power within the political system in different hubs/centres – regional, local, national, international) Pluralism is characterised by a wide spread of power. In the political process, pluralism promotes a forum for debate and scrutiny between competing groups in society. In regards for citizens to participate in the political process, pluralism allows individuals to be represented by various parties, pressure groups or new social movements. In the UK there are an estimated 7000+ pressure groups, a clear expression of a diverse distribution of power. This can be seen due the reason that in an ideally pluralist democracy, groups have more or less equal access to the political process.  Pluralism implies a range of  groups and pressure groups are both sectional (trade unions and business groups) and promotional (environmental and welfare groups) representing a plurality of groups, causes and issues.

Insider groups tend to have a closer relationship with the government with direct access to Ministers and therefore hold more influence over government policies and decisions. Groups that hold this Insider status rarely turn to forms of illegal or direct action as this is seen as unnecessary for achieving their aims. Instead they enjoy frequent contact and consultation with Ministers, Civil Servants and Parliament. IPGs ordinarily consist of a small and limited amount of members, most of which are hidden from the public eye. Example of this would be the BAA, BBA, CBI, NFU, BMA

Outsider Pressure Groupslittle or no government contract or government accessibility resulting in outsider pressure groups resorting to methods of direct action such as demonstrations protests, lobbying, leafleting etc. some of which could be illegal. They also do not have the favour of being consulted by the government on policies and decisions which could relate to the group and its members. The groups that are excluded from the policy processes are those which try to influence the government policy from the outside like the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Plane Stupid or UKUncut. Overall elitism assumes that there is a ‘power struggle’ in political activity with winners and losers. Elitism contradicts pluralist theory, where pressure groups promote a more even distribution of power

ElitismElitism is the theory that political power is concentrated in the hands of the few, an elite. Power is held to be narrowly concentrated in the hands of wealthy corporations, privileged social classes and professional politicians and bureaucrats who share a similar usually conservative social outlook. Power is thus exercised in the self interest of the elite. Elite groups enjoy frequent contact and consultation with Ministers, Civil Servants and Parliament. IPGs ordinarily consist of a small and limited amount of members, most of which are hidden from the public eye. Example of this would be the BAA, BBA, CBI, NFU, BMA. Former Cameron advisor Steve Hilton has criticised the lack of democracy and corporate dominance over government and parliament. Insiders commonly have access to huge financial resources and legal expertise. Corporate donations to political parties- hedge funds estimated to have donated £47m in five years to the Conservative Party.

Pressure groups and political parties pressure groups aim to exert influence on government externally, whereas parties seek to exercise power through obtaining representation in representative bodies such as parliament. Parties do this by putting candidates up for election, in hope of gaining representation and forming, or taking part in government as occurred in the 2015 General Election. Another difference is that Pressure groups, whether sectional or promotional, have a narrow or single issue focus whereas parties put forward manifestos and a wide range of issues of public policy ranging from education, health, welfare, the economy, defence and foreign policy.

Political participationone of the main functions of pressure groups. Pressure groups have become increasingly important agents of political participation. Mainly outsider groups seek to exert influence on the government by mobilizing popular support through movements such as; petitions, demonstrations, marches and other forms of political protest. An example of political participation was the demonstration on tuition fees in December 2012, organized by the National Union of Students. Also in December 2010 there was a sit-in in Top Shop organized by UKUncut. Pressure groups can mobilize public participation through petitions. The Hillsborough Justice campaign launched a petition through the GOVUK website which eventually obtained 154,202 signatures forcing the government to release all the documents relating to the disaster. March for Women January 2017. RMT South East Rail Strikes January 2017. Junior Doctor Strikes Autumn 2016.


Part a) Questions  – 5 Marks (AO1 only)

a) Using examples, distinguish between a sectional and promotional pressure groups.

a) What is meant by pluralism?

a) Using examples distinguish between insider and outsider pressure groups.

a) Distinguish between pluralism and elitism.

a) Outline two differences between pressure groups and political parties.

a) Using examples, distinguish between promotional and sectional pressure groups.

a) How do pressure groups promote functional representation?

a) What is the link between pluralism and pressure groups?

a) Describe two ways in which pressure groups promote political participation.

a) What is pluralist democracy? (June, 2014)

a) Outline TWO differences between sectional and promotional pressure groups. (June 2015)

a) Using examples identify two functions of pressure groups. (June 2016)

Part b) Questions  – 10 Marks ( 7 AO1 and 3 AO2)

b) Explain the methods used by pressure groups to influence government.

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b) Why is it sometimes difficult to distinguish between pressure groups and political parties?

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b) Explain three political functions of pressure groups

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b) How and why do some pressure groups use direct action?

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b) Explain three factors which may restrict the influence of a pressure group.

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b) Explain why different pressure groups use different methods to achieve their aims.

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b) Explain three reasons why pressure group activity may undermine democracy.

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b) Using examples explain three reasons why pressure groups may fail to achieve their objectives (June 2014)

b) Using examples, explain three methods used by pressure groups to achieve their objectives (June 2015)

b) Explain why some pressure groups choose to use illegal methods (June 2016)

Additional Video resources and articles on a variety of Pressure group activity. Many thanks to Katharine Stockland for researching this and suggesting these resources.

Islam 4 UK

Footage of a protest. Useful as shows their focus on both local and global issues, their style of protest, and the demographic make-up of group. About 7 mins in total but fine to watch first 2-3 mins.

Info on the ban and on some of their tactics before the ban

Islam 4 UK

This is a video made by ALF — it gives a good glimpse into some of their more extreme illegal/violent tactics. Approx 2 mins

Good overview of ALF in 2000 in BBC article

Overview of latest spate of attacks by ALF in 2005 in The Telegraph

Occupy London

A short film (4 mins) made by the Occupy movement – involves footage of various protests and interviews with protesters. It gives a good sense of some of the issues at hand, the demographics of protestors and the atmosphere of the protests, particularly the St Paul’s camp.

An open letter from a city lawyer to the occupy movement in which he expresses appreciation of aims and tactics of protestors.

A short film (3 mins) focused on St Paul’s site – it has footage of daily life in the site, as well as their eventual eviction by police.

A 2012 BBC article overviewing different opinions on what the St Paul’s protest achieved.

Junior Doctors Strike

Telegraph video of a picket line during one of the strikes. It is mainly footage of doctors talking about why they are striking – 2.44 mins.

Article in the guardian on BMA claims that strikes resulted in a much better deal for junior doctors.

Channel 4 news video in Feb 2016, includes footage of pickets across the country. It focuses more on the antagonism between protestors and Jeremy Hunt than the above clip. 4 mins

English Defense League

From The Guardian. A short video (5 mins) about a 2010 Bradford protest, including interviews with protestors and footage of protests and counter-protests and rallies from muslim groups and other locals.

An article about the state of the far right in Jan 2015, including an interesting overview of the various new splinter groups that make up the far-right political landscape.

Short blog post from a researcher on EDL – gives some interesting insights into what motivates EDL protestors.

Detailed, 15 page report from Chatham House on EDL.

Fathers 4 Justice

Promotional video made by the group but includes nice shots of men in superhero outfits in various crazy places..just under 2 mins.

Guardian article on founder of Fathers 4 Justice on Matt O’Connor – some interesting information on their relationships with politicians, including the 2013 early day motion on shared parenting rights.

News clip on a Batman protester on the M25 and the traffic chaos it caused..quite a short clip.

Critical article on their tactics from The Telegraph

Conservative party donations

Ed Miliband and David Cameron clashing in PMQs over the issue of hedge fund donations. 2 mins

Anti Austerity Protests

BBC News news coverage on anti-austerity protests across UK, about 2 mins, including speeches and comments from politicians. Just over two mins.

Black Lives Matter, UK

Promotional video from the movement as part of their ‘shut down’ protests in 2016.

Overview of events in July/August 2016 – BLM blocked off roads, etc.

Plane Stupid

News clip about protestors from Plane Stupid on north runaway at Heathrow airport. 1.14 mins.

Article on protest outside the court holding the trial of Heathrow protestors. Natalie Bennett, head of the Green Party, joined the protest.

Good overview in 2008 of rapid expansion of movement and activities thus far.

Atlantic Bridge

Informative clip explaining the relationship between Liam Fox and Adam Werrity and the broader controversial links between Atlantic Bridge and the Tories. About 6 mins.

Two guardian articles explaining the controversy over Atlantic Bridge 

Frack Off

Anti-fracking protest (mixed pressure groups) video from RT — 1.20 mins, clips of protestors outside Parliament, featuring Viviene Westwood, on the day of a final Parliamentary debate and vote in the Commons on shale gas fracking

BBC Article from Jan 2015 after the Commons vote to continue with shale gas fracking – same day as the protests outside parliament were held.

Footage of protestors among shoppers in Topshop and then in Boots in London. Approx 3 mins

UK Uncut Brighton protest outside Vodafone, including footage of interviews with passer-byes, as well as interactions and eventually removals with police. Just over 4 mins.

Student Protests 2010

BBC news clip covering the more violent demonstrations in London and outside government buildings in 2010. After 3 mins, it switches to coverage of the Lib Dems, including NUS’ claim that they will force by-elections in Lib Dem constituencies on the grounds that they have broken. their manifesto commitment to scrap tuition fees –  7 mins.

Details of a 2012 NUS-organised protest on tuition fees, as well as info on NUS research conducted on trust in politicians over tuition fees which they have used as part of their campaign.

Syria Protests/Stop the War protest

Footage from guardian of people protesting against intervention in Syria in Parliament Square, including people doing what they call a “die-in”: people lying down pretending to be dead.

Green movement and undercover Police Ops

Newsnight report on PC Mark Kennedy and on the collapse of the trial to prosecute the green campaigners that he spied on. Includes clips of the protestors’ actions and interviewers with them. The whole report is 9 mins long, but the first section could still be useful to watch.

Part c) Questions  – 25 Marks ( 8 AO1, 9 AO2 & 8 AO3)

c) To what extent do pressure groups promote pluralist democracy?

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c) To what extent have pressure groups become more important in recent years?

c) To what extent do pressure groups promote political participation in the UK?

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c) To what extent do pressure groups undermine democracy?

c) To what extent are the largest pressure groups the most successful ones?

c) Is pressure group politics in the UK better described as pluralist or elitist?

c) Are pressure groups becoming more powerful, or less powerful?

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c) To what extent do pressure groups strengthen pluralist democracy?

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c) To what extent is the success of pressure groups a reflection of their level of public support?

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c) To what extent do pressure groups undermine democracy? (June 2014)

c) DO pressure groups concentrate or distribute power (June 2015)

c) To what extent has the power and influence of pressure groups changed in recent years? (June 2016)

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