Decision making in central government
Pressure groups are organisations which campaign for changes in the law or new legislation in specific areas. As such, they can have a strong influence on public opinion and voting behaviour.
Pressure groups allow people the opportunity to participate in democracy by being involved in social change without necessarily joining a political party. In some ways, pressure groups may be viewed as essential to democracy because they allow the free expression of opinion and the opportunity to influence governments. Because of this, pressure groups are not tolerated in non-democratic countries.
There are different kinds of pressure groups:
These have open membership from the public. They promote a cause, eg Friends of the Earth, which is concerned with protecting the environment.
These are open only to certain individuals, like the members of a trade union, eg the National Union of Journalists.
These have close links with the government. They will give advice and will be consulted prior to legislation which may affect that group, eg the British Medical Association will be consulted on matters relating to health.
These groups often take action of which the government disapproves. Organisations like Greenpeace often engage in civil disobedience or direct action in order to reinforce their point. Some outsider groups are also wealthy and use a great deal of publicity to attract people to promote their cause.
Sometimes pressure groups might be seen as a threat to democracy because a relatively small, unelected group of individuals can force a change in the law. Pressure groups employ a variety of methods to promote their cause.
Demonstrations are an example of direct action, which may or may not have an effect on a government. Petitions are another way to raise awareness among politicians of public feeling about a specific issue. Media advertising may also be used to attract public sympathy and this may help the pressure group in its efforts to influence the government.
Pressure groups may also have influence inside Parliament if there is an MP who is a member of the group or is sympathetic to it. MPs with affiliations to pressure groups must declare an interest when speaking on behalf of the group. MPs may not receive payment for promoting the cause unless they declare it. Insider groups may be involved in the decision-making process by being on committees with Ministers, MPs and civil servants, as well as writing advisory papers and sponsoring MPs. Outsider groups also have an opportunity to lobby politicians and their views will often be taken into consideration. There is criticism of the undue influence that may be wielded by the large and wealthy groups. There are some very large and wealthy pressure groups which can afford to use expert parliamentary lobbyists, who know the parliamentary and legislative system and can make direct contact with Ministers and MPs. Some people argue that some pressure groups have more opportunities than others to influence what decisions are made by Parliament.