Factors Affecting The Power Of Pressure Groups

Factors affecting Pressure Group Power

March 2023

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See also Analysing Pressure Groups and Pressure Groups and Democracy


We may analyse the factors influencing pressure group power in terms of their own organisation, their relationships with other organisations and their relationships with public opinion which in turn are influenced heavily by their relationships with the mass media.


A pressure group’s own organisation will influence its powers in that pressure groups which are well supported, well financed and well led are more likely to be effective. A large membership means that members can help more effectively with activities such as leafleting, writing to the press, MPs and local councillors and participation in demonstrations. Governments will recognise the importance of large membership recognising that such members are also voters who ultimately help to determine governments’ electoral fortunes while large membership and especially high membership density [the ratio of actual members to potential members] enhances pressure group representativeness and legitimacy and may help pressure groups to attain insider status. We should note also, however, that small local pressure groups concerned with small scale local issues such as hospital or school closures can be effective even with small membership and that the quality of membership may sometimes be as in important as the quantity.


Large pressure groups seeking to involve themselves in national political campaigns will require large amounts of money to employ experts and administrators and to finance expensive advertising in the mass media. They also require knowledgeable, authoritative and probably charismatic leaders who can deal effectively with government ministers, civil servants and the mass media and who can also help to enthuse existing members and attract new ones.


A pressure group’s power may well depend upon its ability to form links with other organisations. Since the UK political system is dominated by the Executive [government ministers and their civil servants] many pressure groups seek insider status as a means of enhancing their power. This insider status is most likely to be achieved if a pressure group possesses at least some of the following features: the capacity to provide advice which facilitates government decision making; objectives which are compatible with government’s own objectives and are also widely supported by public opinion and a willingness to operate through the ”usual political channels.” Sometimes also governments may be forced to confer insider status if pressure groups possess powerful sanctions which can potentially undermine government policy.


Even if a pressure group has limited direct access to government its powers may be increased if it has strong connections with other supporting pressure groups and/or political parties as for example when individual trade unions are supported by the Trade Union Congress [TUC] and the Labour party and business interests are supported by the Confederation of British Industry and the Conservative Party. Of course both trade unions and business pressure groups are realistic in realising that they must try to develop good working relationships with both main political parties which may alternate in government although this has been easier at some times than at others.


Some outsider pressure groups have nevertheless been able to exercise considerable influence over government policy when they are campaigning on an issue which has widespread public support as in the case of opposition to the poll tax. Many opponents of the poll tax might not have supported the methods adopted by the Anti Poll Tax Federation but they did support its aims and this opposition did eventually result in the abolition of the poll tax. It was also one important factor which led to the forced resignation of Mrs Thatcher from the premiership in 1990. Furthermore although the activities of the Anti-War Coalition did not succeed in preventing the involvement of the UK in the Iraq War it may have helped to hasten the gradual withdrawal of UK forces from Iraq and have contributed to Tony Blair’s earlier than expected resignation of the premiership.


The nature and extent of mass media coverage of pressure group activity may have a major impact on its effectiveness. Pressure groups have to contend with possible political biases in some sections of the mass media and also with mass media definitions of what is considered newsworthy. Pressure groups may opt for unconventional publicity stunts, large demonstrations and perhaps more confrontational direct action as measures of seeking publicity but they must be wary that such activities may sometimes receive unfavourable mass media coverage resulting in a loss of public support.


The power of individual pressure groups will be reduced insofar as they face opposition to their aims and/or their methods from government, from unsympathetic political parties, from countervailing pressure groups, from the mass media and from public opinion. For example pressure groups representing prisoners or asylum seekers or radical animal rights groups are all likely to face considerable opposition from a range of political forces.


The analysis of the factors influencing the power of pressure groups does imply that pressure groups representing business and financial interests and the wealthier members of society are more likely to be well organised, well financed and to be granted insider status by governments on important matters of economic policy which appears to provide support for theories of Marxism, Elitism and, indeed neo-pluralism rather than the theory of democratic pluralism.


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However it can also be suggested that relatively small scale non-economic pressure groups can influence national government policy on issues such as abortion, gay rights, smoking and health and animal welfare and that important environmental pressure groups are increasingly able to challenge the dominance of business pressure groups on issues related to the environment. It seems very likely that even if business pressure groups do exercise great influence in economic affairs important aspects of democratic pluralism do exist in relation to other political issues.


An Additional Note


For a more detailed understanding of factors affecting pressure group power some familiarity with theories of Marxism, Elitism and Democratic Pluralism is necessary and you will certainly find that AS Level questions on pressure groups sometimes require some familiarity with these theories. I have written a fairly detailed essay from which you can extract information relevant to the study of pressure groups although, since the essay is a little complicated in parts some discussion of it with your teachers may be necessary first! Click here for the essay.