Pressure Groups are an integral part of politics in the UK (and elsewhere.) Some, naturally, are more effective than others. Here we look briefly at some possible factors and causes of success.
In the democratic society that is the United Kingdom, the political system is far from the simplistic rule from above by Prime Minister and party that many assume it to be. There are numerous other organisations and societies, all seeking to assert themselves and influence the workings of government. One such family of organisations are the pressure groups, each with its own aims and methods. When looking at past and current politics though, we see that some such organisations appear to be more successful than others, but why? To answer this question, one must firstly determine what is meant by ’success.’ Generally speaking, all pressure groups have the same overarching aim – to influence those in power in order so that decisions and policy are made in agreeance with their own agendas. Incidentally, this is where the main distincition between a political party and a pressure group comes about – pressure groups aim not to gain power and govern themselves, but to represent a specific group of people, cause or idea to those that do. Elsewhere in our capitolist democracy however, their methods share a very similar foundation – people, ideology and money.
As with the political party, organisation and resources are of huge importance in furthering a group’s success. Not only does the pressure group (PG) have to organise and codify its aims, but it also must make itself known. In order for a PG to be successful, it must have support, and in order for it to have support, people must know about it. An organisation can be well funded, jusifiable and perhaps even sympathised with by those in Westminster, but if there is no real public support then chances are nothing will happen. Advertising then, is key. Advertisment, through a variety of mediums, is not just how a PG communicates its aims to the populace, but also how it convinces them to support it. A good PG will try its utmost to garner support wherever and however it is possible. Groups such as ‘Anti Smoking for Health’ (A.S.H.) have run in recent times several extremely succesfull advertising campaigns, cuminating in increased popular support and consequently the UK Smoking Ban – a great victory for the group. Similar tactics are also applied across a wide spectrum of media – the papers, radio and, more recently, via the new platforms of social networking sites.
Though publicising onseself is of huge importance, in order to do so, there must also be a not-inconsiderable amount of funding to back it all. If a pressure group is underfunded, then, aside from publicity stunts and demonstrations, there’s little that can be done. Take the Fathers For Justice group – it has a reasonable membership and a reasonable set of demands, but what it lacks is a large support base. This is mainly due to the fact that the campaign is relatively reclusive – aside from the batman stunt of a few years back, we hear very little of them – and underfunded – it is, after all, run by normal people without any experience of pubic relations and lobbying.
Another extremely important factor in determining the success of a pressure group is by guaging the sway it holds with politicians. If a group has the ear of senior politicians – Ministers, MPs and others, such as the Lords, then they have a direct route in attempting to implement or change policy. If, for example, the government chose to make changes within the NHS, then the British Medical Association (BMA) will undoubtably have been consulted at some point. Groups that have hold sway with politicians are called insider groups, and have a far more likely chance of success than their less popular kin. Outsider groups – i.e. those that work outside of the governing circles – are far less likely to have their aims enacted for a number of reasons. Firstly, many such groups have been involved in slightly ‘dubious’ activities such as the case of Dr. Jentsch who found his car fire-bombed by the animal rights activists; the ‘Animal Liberation Brigade.’ As such, they have lost all credibility, for no political leader wants to be seen in discussion with anarchistic semi-terrorists. Additionally, many outsider groups will have slightly more obscure aims and are therefore less likely to be popular with parties, whose sole concern is to please as many as possible as often as possible (in return for votes.) This is the case with groups such as the Countryside Alliance, whose views represented only a small proportion of society.
Perhaps more important even than organisation and influence then, is having public support. In order for a pressure group to be successful, It must represent a large group of people and in turn be supported by them. Groups such as the NSPCC, National Trust and RSPCA have legions of supporters and thus hold great power and sway with the leaders. It is typical of any political system that has one figure or party which may be blamed and held accountable, thus forcing leaders – prospective and current – to take notice of the public opinion. Perhaps the most famous example if this in recent history is Margaret Thatcher’s attempted introduction of a Poll Tax where, to all extents and purposes, the whole nation revolted and refused to accept it – headed by the Anti Poll Tax Federation. This didn’t have the ear of government – far from it, but it got the job done nonetheless. Another aspect of popular support to be considered is the level of belief in the cause. If people are generally apathetic, then no one will likely be pursuaded, but if a cause is championed by articulate and passionate leaders, then a victory is far more likely. If one is to win the support of the people, then one must appeal to them. Our recent Parliamentary Elections showed just how important the public image is when, just as with the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy election, huge amounts of consideration for Nick Clegg came about after his positive appearance during our live debates.
Another facet in the success of PGs is in the power they already hold. If an organisation can cause extreme political or economic stress to come about, then a blackmail may be possible or if an organisation can provide an incentive for the government, then what is essentially bartering can take place. If a pro nuclear fuel group were to propose a new set of power stations, they might assert that the jobs it would provide are worth taking an interest in. Contrastingly, on the slightly less friendly side are groups such as the trade unions, whose ability to call strikes, lock outs and the like can prove immensly damaging. This however does not always work. Going back again to the Thatcher era, we saw the Miners Union ignored and eventually crushed by the ‘Iron Lady.’
As we have seen, the success of a Pressure Group in furthering its aims is down to a number of different factors. Depending on the type of pressure group and its aims, its chances of success vary greatly. Some such as the Anti Poll Tax Federation had relatively little funding and organisation yet it famously succeeded. Had this group been well funded and well organised, but lacking in support, then nothing would have happened. Conversely, some groups such as the NSPCC and BMA – the former being a cause group (i.e. promoting a cause for the ‘greater good’) and the latter a sectional (safeguarding an individual section of society)- are held in great esteem not because their members are feared but because of the immense experience and expertise the organisation’s leaders have. I think therefore that it is relatively safe to say that, in order for a pressure group to be succesful (in attaining its goals) must generally fall into at least one of the categories discussed above – the best, of course, having attributes of all. What is needed depends on circumstances – a single episodic group such as the local ‘Hands Off Our Hospital’ was succesful due to its popular support and moderate aims which could be sensibly debated by the relevant politicians. The slightly less successful local cause ‘Ban the Saving Cuts’ campaign will undoubtable fail because of it’s ill thought out and foolish nature – the government has committed to cost cutting, and little can be done about it. Larger campaigns such as the the RSPCA and NSPCC are respected and successful because of the invauablility of its knowledge and support to politicians. In conclusion then, the success of a pressure group depends majorly on the cause and how able it it to get its aims across. Undoubtably however, the best ways of doing this are by being an insider group, gaining support and advertising.