Pressure groups

Pressure groups can be described as an organised group that do not put candidates up for election in general elections; they do try to influence government legislation and their policies that they are trying to implement. The aim of this assignment is to examine how important pressure groups can be within Britain’s political policy process.

Every pressure group consists of individuals who share a common interest, whilst using whatever resources are available as a direct result of their unity of interest to influence and apply pressure on various agencies to have their views adopted, such as government, ministers of parliament, local government or officials. Their aim is to use different tactics to highlight their cause, putting pressure on politicians, such as lobbying that is pressurising and becoming part of the democratic process. The lobbying activities are achieved through meetings with those in power and presenting them with their points of view and writing letters.

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This is aimed to persuade those in power to take notice and relevant action in anyone group’s particular issue. Pressure groups do not seek to gain possession of power or to employ power. They serve to have an effect on power whilst remaining separated from it by applying pressure on it. Pressure groups can be divided into two groups: sectional (interest) and promotional (cause). Sectional groups aim to advance and protect the general interests of its members, particularly in their economic and professional interests.

This includes groups such as ‘The British Medical Association’ (BMA), ‘The National Union of Teachers (NUT) and employers associations for example ‘The National Union of Mine Workers’ (NUM); who seek to improve the pay and working conditions of its members. These groups are normally well organised and are consulted by government officials and organisations. Due to the interests only relating to a small portion of society, membership within this type of group is usually restricted to whatever that professional body is such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

They also have a tendency to get as many individuals as possible to join their group. They are also better funded than promotional groups. Promotional groups are concerned with a specific social cause aimed at influencing policy-making in Westminster and its administration in Whitehall. They represent some belief or value and seek to act in the interest of their belief or value on a particular issue. Anyone can join a promotional group, as membership is open, so long as they share the common interest of what the group is campaigning for; for example environmental groups such as Greenpeace.

Other promotional groups that exist within society are ‘Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’ (CND), Friends of the Earth and Shelter. The two main political parties within Britain are often connected to sectional groups. The Labour Party has always had strong links with trade unions, whilst the Conservative Party and pressure groups such as ‘The Confederation of British Industry’ (CBI) and ‘The Institute of Directors’ have strong connections. Although the Labour Party has always had strong connections with trade unions, they have had more influence on the policies of the labour party than any other group has had on a political party.

However, during the Thatcher Conservative government era of the 1980s new laws were introduced, which was specifically designed to limit the power of the trade unions and the influence of trade unions on policy-making has declined as a result. Since the Labour party has returned to power in 1997, Tony Blair has maintained traditional links with the trade union movements, he has however, not allowed the TUC to regain the influence it once had over government policies. Pressure groups use various methods to achieve their aims. This can be done through Westminster.

The majority of pressure groups have a Member of Parliament (MP) who is friendly towards their interest, and other MPs are paid a fee in advance by pressure groups to act on their behalf. The MP can question and influence ministers for the group. Pressure groups can achieve their aims through government and civil services. There are very few interest groups that are known as insider groups who have easy access to ministers and civil servants. Publicity through the mass media is another method that pressure groups can utilize in the hope of influencing society’s opinion, such as an organised march, demonstration and public meetings.

The notion being that, if they can sway public opinion to support their cause, which in turn could influence the government as political parties occasionally do listen to public opinion if they want to be re-elected or elected. Some pressure groups use this direct action; such as strikes by trade unions, blockading of ports to prevent animal exports, although extreme there are getting their opinions and the plight of their cause across to the public and government. If the public support these methods they can be very successful in changing government policy.

The threat to government MPs is that they may lose their Parliamentary seat, which is the most effective and efficient weapon any pressure group can possess. If public opinion brings pressure to bear on MPs through their local constituency parties so that they come to believe that their constituents would vote against them, then MPs will pass on that concern to their party at Westminster. If sufficient numbers are involved, the government may well change its policy.

Occasionally it is seen that pressure groups are a fundamental part of the democratic process, due to it giving individuals the chance to take part directly in the process of Government, influencing those in position of power. Pressure groups give normal people the opportunity to voice concerns to those in power. Since the general public is not allowed to participate in the discussions between pressure groups and policy-makers, it is therefore not possible to know what arguments have made those in power reach the decisions they do.

The snowdrop campaign was set up in the immediate aftermath of the Dunblane shooting were 16 schoolchildren and their teacher died on the 13 march 1996. The group called for the banning of all private ownership of handguns. Labour Mp Martin O’Neil gave the group the advice on how to set up a parliamentary petition. These people had very little knowledge of the British Political system and political lobbying. The group were united together through their genuine concern to change the gun laws in the UK.

Newspapers, The Sunday Mail, Sun and Sunday Times turned the issue into a massive debate gaining more and more political attention, adopted the appeal and subsequent campaign. The petition stated that – “All firearms held for recreational purposes foe use in authorised sporting clubs be held securely at such clubs with the firing mechanisms removed, the private ownership of handguns be made illegal; certification of all fire arms be subject to stricter control” (Pressure Groups – Access to Politics; pg 116)

The Scottish National Party and the National Union of Teachers supported the petition, Conservative and Labour backbenchers demanded action on the ownership of handguns. A gun amnesty was arranged by the government in an attempt to pacify the public whilst the debate continued on how and what changes in firearms law should take place. Increased pressure was put on the government as the 1st anniversary of the ‘Dunblane massacre’ approached. There was also a general election around the corner, thus the government was put under pressure to have new legislation in place prior to the forthcoming election and anniversary.

A Conservative dominated committee in the House of Commons select Committee on home affairs concluded that a ban was not necessary. The labour minority on the select committee supported this ban. The media again played a huge role in the campaign, with the sun issuing telephone numbers of conservative members who had opposed the ban that had sat on the select committee. The sun was urging the public to telephone these members and protest about their decisions.

The bbc broadcasted a programme showing interviews with the children’s parents who had been killed in the massacre. The programme was designed to win the hearts and minds of the British public. Members of the snowdrop campaign pledged to support the Labour Party instead of the Conservative Party who was looking to be re-elected. The conservative party lost the general election and the labour party became the new government of the UK on 1st may 1997. “On 27 may 1997, a bill was given its first reading in parliament to ban all handguns including those.

The new law gained Royal assent on 27 November 1997, and came into force on 26th January 1998″{Parliamentary affairs: pg 329). The snowdrop pressure group highlighted the various tools that a pressure group requires if it is to be successful. However it is worthwhile noting that the media played a huge role in gaining public opinion over an already heartfelt issue.

Some may well argue that parliament was already aware of the issue surrounding firearms legislation and that Dunblane had acted as a catalyst to push forward changes in the law, suggesting that the snowdrop campaign was less effective that it appeared. It can take a tragedy like Dunblane to spur a government into action. The forthcoming general election also put pressure on the conservative government and opposing the labour party hoping to become government, to take notice of the Snowdrop campaign.