Some pressure groups are clearly more powerful than others. Some succeed while others fail. But what does ‘success’ mean? How can we weigh up pressure-group power or influence? These are difficult questions because ‘success’ may be measured in different ways. Success may mean:
- Affecting government policy – policy-making power.
- Pushing an issue up the political agenda – agenda-setting power.
- Changing people’s values, perceptions and behaviour – ideological power
Another difficulty in measuring pressure-group power is that there is considerable debate about how power is distributed amongst pressure groups.
There is disagreement, in particular, about whether pressure groups tend to widen the distribution of power, giving power to the people, or whether they tend to concentrate it, strengthening the already powerful. This is often portrayed as a battle between two rival theories of political power, pluralism and elitism. The debate has major implications for the relationship between pressure groups and democracy. In practice, a variety of factors affect the power of individual groups. These include the following:
- Organization and leadership
- The government’s views
- Popular support
- The effectiveness of opposition Wealth
The most powerful pressure groups in the country are the ones that government must listen to because they have financial and economic power – they are wealthy. This largely explains the power of business groups. Why does government listen to major corporations (such as Shell, BP, Barclays, ICI, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, BAE Systems, BT and Vodaphone) and to their peak groups and trade associations? Business groups have a number of key advantages over other groups:
- As the main source of employment and investment in the economy, all governments, regardless of their ideological beliefs, must seek their cooperation and support.
- They possess knowledge and expertise that are essential to the formulation of economic, industrial and trade policies.
- They possess the financial strength to employ professional lobbyists and public relations consultants, and to make donations to political parties.
- They often have high public profiles, have access to the media and can run advertising campaigns. Trade unions also have economic power, which can be exercised through strikes, ‘working to rule’, ‘go-slows’ and other forms of industrial action.
However, industrial action of this kind has two drawbacks. It penalizes workers themselves (through a loss of wages and perhaps job insecurity) and it risks undermining public support (because it causes disruption and inconvenience). Size Does size matter? Are the largest pressure groups the most powerful? This is one of the assumptions that is made by pluralist theorists, who believe that pressure group power is democratically based. Membership size certainly has advantages:
- Large groups can claim to represent public opinion. Government listens to them because, at the end of the day, their members can have an electoral impact. Groups such as the RSPB, the Consumers’ Association and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) therefore ensure that their membership levels remain above 1 million.
- More members means more subscriptions and donations. Large groups tend to be wealthy groups. This has led to the growth of so-called ‘chequebook’ groups (such as The Worldwide Fund for Nature or WWF), which aim to achieve mass memberships but leave campaigning in the hands of full-time professionals. About 90% of Greenpeace’s total income comes from its members.
- A large membership allows groups to organize political campaigns and protests. Groups such as trade unions and CND use their members as a key resource. Members are the main people who turn up to marches and demonstrations. However, it would be a mistake to believe that big groups are always the most powerful groups. For example, membership size cannot usually compensate for a lack of economic power. The CBI is generally more powerful than the TUC, despite the latter representing trade unions with about 7 million members.
Similarly, some groups may be small but exert influence through their policy expertise and specialist knowledge. This applies to the Howard League for Penal Reform, which has a membership of only around 3,000. Finally, the density and extent of membership within a particular group of people may be more important than overall size. The BMA’s influence stems, in part, from the fact that about 80% of doctors are members, allowing it to claim to speak on behalf of the medical profession generally. Organization and leadership Organization helps groups to mobilize their resources effectively and to take concerted action.
Some groups are easier to organize than others. For example, producers are easier to organize than consumers; doctors are easier to organize than patients; teachers are easier to organize than students. This also helps to explain why interest groups are often more powerful than cause groups. While interest groups are able to take political action quickly and effectively, the supporters of cause groups are usually scattered, and potential members are difficult to identify and contact. Effective organization also requires financial resources (the best organized groups tend to be the most wealthy) and high quality leadership.
Good leaders can bring a number of advantages to groups. The attributes of an effective leader include:
- Acute political skills – they know how the policy process works, who to network with and how to exert pressure.
- Good political contacts – they know the ‘right’ people.
- Developed media and presentational skills – they know how to put a case.
- A high public profile – they are publicly recognized and maybe even liked. Examples of high profile pressure-group leaders include Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, the civil liberties group, and Peter Tatchell, a prominent figure in the gay rights organization OutRage.
In other cases, celebrities have been used to heighten the media and public profile of a campaign – Elton John with AIDS awareness, and Bob Geldof and Bono with global poverty and trade reform. In 2005, Jamie Oliver almost single-handedly put the issue of school meals on the political agenda and encouraged the government to allocate more resources to improve their quality. The government’s views Groups are far more likely to succeed when the government is broadly sympathetic towards their aims or goals.
When a group’s goals clash fundamentally with those of the government, it is consigned to the status of an ideological outsider. Ideological outsiders may be able to bring about long-term changes in political values and attitudes, but they have very little chance of changing government policy in the short term. Traditionally, business groups were more influential under a Conservative government, and the trade unions were more influential under Labour (although this changed in the 1990s as Labour adopted a more clearly pro-business stance).
Other examples include the greater influence of groups campaigning against hunting with dogs (such as the RSPCA) and in favour of the right to roam (such as the Ramblers’ Association) once a ‘sympathetic’ Labour government was elected in 1997. Public support Pressure groups that enjoy high levels of public support have greater political influence than ones with only minority support. Crudely, governments calculate how much electoral damage may be caused by not acceding to a group’s demands.
The success of the Snowdrop Campaign, in campaigning for a ban on the keeping of handguns, was significantly influenced by the public outrage that had followed the school massacre at Dunblane in 1996. Similarly, the success of the People’s Fuel Lobby in bringing about adjustments to fuel taxes in 2000 was underpinned by the fact that its campaign of blockades and protests enjoyed a broad measure of public support. In other cases, certain groups may enjoy wider public support than others because of the nature of the group itself. Nurses, for example, enjoy wider public respect and support than, say, students.
Nevertheless (as nurses would attest), public support is not always reflected in political influence. For instance, massive Stop the War Campaign marches in 2003, and opinion poll opposition, failed to have any impact on the Blair government’s decision to participate in the Iraq War. Effectiveness of opposition Pressure groups may succeed or fail, less because of their own resources, and more because of the strength or weakness of the forces that oppose them. Groups invariably confront other groups, and interests clash with rival interests. Very few pressure groups have it all their own way.
The progress that Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) had in campaigning for measures to discourage smoking was countered through the 1980s and 1990s by a well-funded tobacco lobby that made major donations to the Conservative Party. Trade unions, even during their heyday in the 1970s, suffered from the fact that business groups enjoy a series of structural advantages over them, in particular through their role in the economy. The anti-hunting groups made efforts to persuade the Labour government in 1997 to carry out its commitment to ban hunting with dogs led to resistance through the formation of the Countryside Alliance in 1998.
Although the Countryside Alliance failed to prevent a ban being introduced, it nevertheless succeeded in delaying it and in modifying how it has worked in practice. Glossary Elitism: The theory that political power is concentrated in the hands of the few, an elite, sometimes called a ‘power elite’. Glossary Elitism: The theory that political power is concentrated in the hands of the few, an elite, sometimes called a ‘power elite’. Activities (1) Explain three factors that affect the power of pressure groups? (2) To what extent are the largest pressure groups the most successful?