Pressure Groups Role in Britain


People participate in politics in various ways such as membership to political parties and voting. Subscription to membership for organisations, associations, and interest groups constitutes other crucial ways for engaging in politics (Barnett 2002). Such organisations and associations are often considered an informal political face in many nations. Currently, the number of people engaging in political parties and those participating in voting is decreasing in many countries. Conversely, the number and size of pressure groups is on a constant rise in nations such as the UK and the US.

In the UK, there are more than 7000 different types of associations. According to Foley (1999), Brazier (1999) and Driver, Hensby, and Sibthorpe (2012), half of these associations have been established from 1960. In Britain, pressure groups have taken new political activist approach involving ‘popular protests, marches, sin-ins, and direct action among others’ (King 2001, p.123). These approaches are labelled as the ‘new politics’. Indeed, they are gaining immense popularity amongst the youths who claim to be disillusioned and tired by the conventional politics. Does it this then mean that pressure groups are replacing political parties in Britain? This paper claims that although pressure groups are becoming increasingly influential in Britain, they cannot take the place of political parties.

Pressure Groups and Political Parties

Political parties and the pressure groups have different values that shape their agenda. Heaney (2010) and King (2001) support this argument by claiming that pressure groups cannot play the roles of the political parties no matter how elaborate they can become. Pressure groups together with political parties grow, decline, and change their forms in response to the desired goals and objectives. While ensuring that a political party does not dissolve pressure groups or converse, the two parties attempt to discipline one another (Heaney 2010). For instance, pressure groups play pivotal roles in influencing the kind of political candidates represent in a party by supplying people to vote for the candidates if the candidates support the policies desired by a pressure group.

However, Webb (1995) counter argues that political parties and the pressure groups have close links, which can make it possible for them to replace one another. Touraine (2002) supports this counter argument by asserting that both of them co-evolve. On the other hand, parties attempt to influence pressure groups to ensure that they support policies forming their political causes. In some situations, pressure groups bring different and opposing political actors together or even drift them far apart depending on their inclinations in matters of public policy.

The above claim suggests that pressure groups mediate between political parties by giving a particular political party the desired synergy to explore its political agenda if such policies receive mass appeal among members of a pressure group. In his argument, Heaney (2010) says that a political party will continue pursuing its agendas even if it is not popular in the public domain. Hazell (2006) confirms that pressure groups cease from engaging in relationships with political parties when the policies they use to pressure the government to pursue in collaborating with opposing political parties cease to be relevant to the members of the groups who are also part of the public benefiting from public policies.

This implies that pressure groups lack the bonds and motivation required for successful operation of a political party (Parry, Moyser & Day 1992). A possible counter argument from Webb (1995) and Jordan and Maloney (2006) is that the capacity of pressure groups in Britain to replace political parties also depends on their capability to assume the roles of political parties, which they have actually done.

Role of Political Parties and Pressure Groups

Political parties and pressure groups have different overall interests while engaging in political processes so that pressure groups cannot fully replace political parties (Heaney 2010; King 2001). However, Touraine (2002) counter argues that in some instances, the parties have pursued common ideologies and policies pursued in the public interest. They have similar roles, which are interchangeable so that one can take the place of the other (Webb 1995). Touraine (2002, p. 91) exemplifies the commonalities between political parties and pressure groups in matters of pursuing public interest claiming that both are ‘the main bodies through which the public views and interests are channelled to government’. In this context, political parties and pressure groups play essential roles in policymaking by holding the government accountable.

In Britain, interests of pressure groups encompass the provision of a means of channelling the concerns of British citizens to the government. In this sense, they are ‘organised groups of people that aim to influence the policies or actions of the government’ (Touraine 2002, p.92). Such groups cannot form political parties. They endeavour to influence the process of making public policies while not exercising any government power. (Heaney 2010). This implies that pressure groups cannot become political parties or replace them since they are not involved in making policy decisions by any means such as voting for motions (King 2001).

Nevertheless, Touraine (2002) counter argues that even though pressure groups do not directly contribute in making policies, they only attempt to influence actors such as members of political parties who are involved in policymaking. This constitutes the same role played by a political a party. However, Bludhorn (2006) supports counter argument on the inability of pressure groups to replace political parties in Britain claiming they are peripheral with reference to the government. An argument that such groups can replace political parties implies that corresponding changes in the constitution are necessary to give such groups the power to engage directly in making public policies.

Political parties are voluntary organisations that are similar to pressure groups. However, they are united by the interest to constitute a government via democratic elections to articulate and implement their political ideologies. Such ideologies are broad-based and developed to benefit all demographic sections of the population in Britain. As Parry, Moyser, and Day (1992, p.59) observe, ‘Political parties are organisations that seek to attract electoral support of the general public in a political system.’ For pressure groups to replace political parties, they need to explicitly express their willingness to form a government by offering candidates for election.

In fact, pressure groups that attempt to transform into political parties often fail (Bludhorn 2006). A good example is the Legalise Cannabis Alliance. Upon its failure in elections, later the pressure group deregistered from being a political party. While the organisation could have been very popular amongst the voters in the 21 boroughs, its losing in the general elections implied that pressure groups could not function as political parties. Webb (1995) counter argues that pressure groups influence public opinion outside the realms of political power. Jordan and Maloney (2006) further suggest the primary function of any organisation that is not included in the government is to represent the interest of the citizens, a role that pressure groups play effectively in Britain.

Pressure groups focus mainly only on very narrow issues. In some situations, they even dedicate their effort to only one issue (Bludhorn 2006). For instance, they may only oppose the development of an infrastructure such as a new rail line. This suggests that pressure groups members ‘are united by either a shared belief in a particular cause or a common set of interest’ (Grant 2000, p.83) opposed to political parties.

Consequently, they lack ideological differences, which bring people together to form a party. Even persons belonging to different political parties may work without conflicts in one interest or pressure group subject to the existence of a common temporary issue that is relevant to all parties. However, Rawcliffe (998) and Touraine (2002) counter argue that some political parties in Britain may have narrow issues of focus. This makes them resemble pressure groups. The BNP (British National Party) has its principal interest on matters of immigration together with racism. The British Green Party has a well-developed party manifesto tackling a number of broad issues. However, its principal interests are mainly on environmental pollution, climatic change, and more importantly, economic sustainability.

Although pressure groups enhance representation of the interests of British citizens in the government, they do not have the will to take responsibilities for formulation and implementation of policies they champion for in the government. Heaney (2010) supports this assertion claiming they can hardly become political parties in that they do not intend to assume a direct responsibility for the policies they pressure the government to consider in the effort to benefit the whole public. Jordan and Maloney (2006, p. 124) support this claim by adding, ‘Political parties must solicit, negotiate and obtain the mandate, cooperation, solidarity and support of the majority to remain in government’. This quest of political parties makes pressure groups unfit in replacing political parties. Driver et al. (2012, p. 158) and King (2001) counter argue that the primary aim of pressure groups encompasses pushing for policies that benefit their members.

Political parties are well positioned to represent the interest of the public than pressure groups. However, the turn of events in British politics since 1960 raises questions about this capability. Driver et al. (2012, p. 159) assert, ‘as the class based political sociology of post-war Britain was eroded and, in certain respects, reconfigured, the traditional agencies of political mobilisation came under threat’. Indeed, this situation had the impacts of reducing the number of people joining political parties.

Although Hansard Society (2009) and Marshall (2009) hold that pressure groups cannot replace political parties, evidence from their research reinforces the argument that political parties are being replaced by pressure groups in by reporting British political party membership at the rate of less than 2 percent of the entire British population. Driver et al. (2012) and Bogdanor (2003) counter argue that this low membership results from the changing British social trends, which have normally damaged the connection and the allegiance between electorate and opinionated party. This implies that electorates have turned to be less partisan in the voting process. Citizens have also become resistant to joining various political parties, which are being replaced by pressure groups (Marshall 2009).

In any democratic nation, citizens must express their political interest to the government in power. They achieve this goal through formal organisations such as political parties, interest groups, and pressure groups. In Britain, as revealed before, political parties have low memberships. This case raises the question on the channels utilised by the majority of the public, which do not belong to political parties, to voice their interests in the government. In support of the capacity of pressure groups to replace political parties, Driver et al. (2012, p. 153) offer response claiming, ‘in the era of political de-alignment, voters have turned away from the established parties towards pressure groups campaigning on single issues’. Pressure groups together with other social movements are important in British political sphere.

Webb (1995) confirms that they are not only crucial and attractive to the British citizens who are less anchored socially, but also take an important lead in handling issue-based politics. Nevertheless, Heaney (2010) King (2001) counter this argument claiming that well-developed political parties are better placed in the representation of the interest of the citizens in any nation. This claim is based on their political will to take responsibility of formulation and implementation of policies of public benefit when they ascend to power or when the government involves such parties in public policies formulation and implementation.


In Britain, since 1960, many pressure and interest groups have come up with the objective of representing British citizens’ interests while political parties’ membership has decreased significantly. This suggests that more British citizens focus on narrow issue-based political agenda that is pursued by pressure groups than broad-based opinions that are pursued by political parties. Although pressure groups are important in the representation and facilitation of political engagements, they lack the will and ability to take responsibility for the policies they wish to implement in the bid to solve issues of public interest. Therefore, although they are becoming increasingly influential in the British political sphere, they cannot take the place of political parties.


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