'Part A - Explain the difference between political parties and pressure groups and how they impact upon UK Government policy. Part B - Select any pressure group and explain what they do and how they as a group have sought and helped to influence government policy.Õ

Written by Conor Newman (February 2008)




-Pressure groups-donÕt usually put up candidates for election; want to influence Government; usually focus on single issues

-Political parties-Put up candidates for election; want to form a Government; produce manifestos covering a wide range of issues

Influencing policy:

-Pressure groups: lobby key policy makers; write to MPs; fund parties; boycott firms; civil disobedience; distribute leaflets; media; demonstrating

-Political parties: try to be elected; work alongside pressure groups; hold Government to account when in opposition; create policy when in power; boycott political engagements (i.e Nick Clegg refusing to meet with Saudi Arabian King)

-Insider and outsider groups and their effect on policy

Example of pressure group: CAAT-Campaign Against Arms Trade




This essay shall be explaining the similarities and differences between political parties and pressure groups, and the various ways in which they can influence policy creation in the UK. To do this, I shall be looking at a variety of examples, focusing primarily on the Campaign Against Arms Trade, an example of a UK Pressure group.


What is a political party?


Political parties are one of the key and inevitable features of a liberal democracy. Although individuals have in the past been successful in securing candidacy, they are becoming less and less frequent in modern politics. It is more efficient for like-minded individuals to come together and form organisations that attempt to form a Government, instead of having hundreds of disparate individuals all with different policies and all vying for power. These organisations are the political parties. They can be defined as voluntary organisations made up of members with broadly similar views that seek to form Government through securing the election of its candidates.        Several points can be made from this definition. Firstly, the fact that these are voluntary organisations shows that it is not compulsory for citizens to join a political party, although it is necessary for members to pay a membership fee towards funding the party. Also, parties are made up of members with broadly similar views, so there are disagreements within parties. For example, the Labour party was originally split between the Social Democratic elements of the party and the Socialist elements of the party. Finally, the goal of political parties is for them to get as many candidates elected to the legislature as possible, in order to have a chance at forming a Government. In the UK, there are 646 constituencies, each of which elects one candidate to represent them in the House of Commons, one of the two chambers of the UK Parliament. So, political parties all vie for the election of their candidates in these constituencies, and the political party that has the most candidates elected forms the Government. The two main political parties in the UK are the Labour party and the Conservative party.


What is a pressure group?


Another hallmark of a liberal democracy is the wide variety of pressure groups, all attempting to influence Government policy. Pressure groups can be defined as organisations whose members all share common interests and goals, and they wish to influence Government to attain these goals. Pressure groups can focus on a massive range of issues; anything of even vague importance probably has a pressure group campaigning for it somewhere. For this reason, pressure groups must be classified in order to make distinctions between different types.

             The most common distinction is between insider and outsider groups. Insider groups are those groups that have direct access to Government, MPs, or other policy makers. These groups are often consulted by Government departments create new laws, and sometimes this has to be occur by law. For example, the National FarmerÕs Union must be consulted on new laws regarding farming, under the Agriculture Act 1947. Outsider groups are groups that do not have direct access to the policy-makers, although this does not mean that they are not as efficient or that they do not work. Groups may be outsiders for several different reasons. They may be seeking insider status, but they are a new group and do not yet have the support. They may be ideologically opposed to the system and so remain outsiders on principle. For example, a staunch Marxist group that does not believe in the state may not want to co-operate with it, adhering to the Marxist idea of a spontaneous revolution by the workers. Despite the fact that outsider groups can influence policy through protests or gaining the support of sympathetic MPs, they are not formally consulted with by the Government.

            Pressure groups can be further sub-divided into sectional or cause groups. Sectional groups are those that represent or act on behalf of a particular section of society-the Law Society representing Solicitors, Trade Unions representing their respective professions, and so on. They are there not for a specific cause, but to defend the interests of their respective section of society. Cause groups, on the other hand, are not usually focused on their own interests, instead campaigning on behalf of a cause, such as animal rights or the putting an end to the War in Iraq. Greenpeace would be a good example of a cause group, or Fathers 4 Justice.

             Among these groups there are those that function at the local level, at the national level, or at an international level, and sometimes there are umbrella groups that incorporate a variety of like-minded pressure groups, like the Confederation of British Industry. Also, some groups are permanent, such as Oxfam as there will always be poverty and famine, while others are temporary, such as a pressure group campaigning to stop the closure of a local hospital-once their goal is achieve (or not), then they will disband. Some pressure groups may not fit easily into these categories, as some people join different groups for different reasons. For example, some people may join a cause group that is campaigning to stop Japanese Whaling not because of the animal rightÕs abuses, but because the whaling is interfering with the fishing trade, and so they are campaigning to defend their own economic interests-to them, the group is a sectional one.





Differences between parties and pressure groups


So now that we know what these two important groups are, what are the similarities and differences between them? Both political parties and pressure groups seek to influence Government, but it is their methods, organisation and ultimate goals that set them apart. Political parties put up candidates for election to the legislature, and by doing so they seek to form a government (or if this is unrealistic, say for a minor party, to influence the current government.). Pressure groups, on the other hand, do not usually put up candidates for election, although this is not always the case. In the 2001 General election, an independent candidate campaigning to save a local hospital was elected, and retained his seat in 2005. This is uncommon, however, and although it does occur, the point is that this is not the primary activity of pressure groups. For political parties, however, their main (and usually only) aim is to get as many candidates elected as possible. Parties and pressure groups also differ in terms of overall aim. Political parties produce manifestos that cover broad policy areas, such as Health, Education, and Defence, the idea being that citizens will vote for that party because of what the reforms they want to implement to improve the country. Pressure groups, however, usually have a single policy area that they focus on, like the Environment, animal rights, or saving a local school from closure. They will not usually create a manifesto, although general aims will be laid out in a mission statement of sorts. Some groups like Greenpeace, tackle a wide variety of issues because the Environment branches out into broader policies-transport, agriculture, trade and foreign policy, for example. Similarly, political parties, since they are trying to represent as much of society as possible, must then aim their policies at a wide variety of people in order to have the best chances at being elected. Pressure groups, especially sectional groups, have a very narrow appeal. The Law Society, for example, is made up only of solicitors, while the Confederation of British Industry is made up only of Industrialists. Furthermore, parties, in order to be seen as legitimate and democratic, will usually have an elected leadership and ordinary members will usually have some sort of say in this. For interest groups, there are not the same sociological pressures to have an elected leadership; often, pressure groups will not have any formal structure and will be very pluralist, while some will be dominated by an unelected leader. However, many do have a rigid and democratic structure, especially very large organisations like trade unions. The Association of TeacherÕs and Lecturers, for example, allows ordinary members to elect candidates to various positions in the hierarchy.



How do political parties influence policy formulation?


There are several ways in which political parties can influence the creation of policy. The main method for political parties is to form the government in a general election. The executive in the UK is the Prime Minister and their cabinet, and it is this group of MPs that proposes new laws and instigates policies. So, if a political party can form the cabinet of the day, then they can effectively propose any policy they wish. However, to get into power a vast amount of resources are required to run a successful election campaign, and only the two main parties really stand a chance at forming a government.

            However, it is not only the party that forms the government that can create or influence policy. The official opposition party, which is currently the Conservative party, constantly scrutinises government policy in debates in the House of Commons, ensuring that the government remains accountable. Sometimes, the government of the day actually utilises policies proposed by opposition parties, like when the Labour government used the Conservative policy on inheritance tax. This gives minority parties a chance to influence policy without being involved in government. Also, individual MPs do have the opportunity to propose new legislation, through Private MemberÕs Bills. If an MP wins a ballot or utilises the ten-minute rule, they can deliver a speech proposing a new piece of legislation, although it is highly unlikely that it will actually go through the parliamentary process. However, if the MP is being backed by other MPs and a variety of pressure groups, then their speech will have more weight. This occurred when Nick Hurd MP proposed the Sustainable Communities Bill, which has now been given Royal Assent and has become law. Nick Hurd had the backing of various pressure groups, including Charter 88, and this gave his speech more credibility and led to the bill actually being passed. Political parties can also influence policy in a more indirect way, such as allying with pressure groups to boycott or lobby certain companies or organisations. This is usually the work of individual MPs rather than parties, however. It occurred when Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, boycotted the meeting with the Saudi Arabian King and refused to meet with him.


How do pressure groups influence policy formulation?


Tactics for pressure groups vary wildly depending on the type of pressure group and the cause they are campaigning for, although generally tactics can be separated into direct and indirect action. As a form of direct action, pressure groups can lobby the key policy-makers, such as Westminster, Whitehall, or the European Union. These areas of policy creation are known as pressure points, as they are places where ŅpressureÓ can be applied by an interest group in order to influence policy. During the passage of a bill in Westminster, pressure groups can attempt to influence the votes and support of MPs through bribery, writing or meeting with them, or protesting outside Parliament. This is particularly prevalent during the Second Reading and Committee stages of the process, where most of the amendments and discussions take place. For example, during the committee stage an MP could be persuaded by a pressure group to ensure that a certain amendment regarding their cause is included in the final act. In recent years, many pressure groups have realised that many important laws are being made in Brussels and Strasbourg, and this has led to there being over 14,000 registered lobbyists in Brussels alone. The National FarmersÕ Union and other pressure groups have offices in mainland Europe, as do many Trade Unions who fund European Socialist parties.

             Pressure groups can also fund political parties as a tactic in campaigning. If an Animal Rights group were to give a large sum of money to the Conservative party, then the Conservatives would want to include a reform regarding animal rights in their next manifesto, in order to ensure that they keep receiving funding from the pressure group. This has been argued to be undemocratic, because it is reinforcing the Marxist view of power-that those with money have the power. Pressure groups are not elected representatives, and yet are effectively creating policy. However, a rebuttal to this would be that a pressure group would not fund a political party that they did not believe would create a policy to their liking anyway; they are simply ensuring that the party sticks to the policy, instead of creating it. As forms of indirect action, pressure groups can distribute leaflets, use the media, and carry out demonstrations. These have varying degrees of success. An example of a successful demonstration would be the Anti-Poll tax demonstrations in 1990, which helped to get rid of the poll tax and, arguably, helped remove Margaret Thatcher from office. The Avaaz.org website organises many online petitions which are then handed to leading politicians. Their biggest campaign so far has been for the UK to put sanctions on the Burmese Junta regime. Nearly a million people signed the petition, and it was handed to Gordon Brown by exiled Burmese monks and pressure group activists. Avaaz also organised a modern media campaign, intended to shame the Chinese government into intervening in Burma. This campaign ran in many leading international newspapers, and it can be argued that it contributed to China imposing sanctions on Burma.

            As well as these legal strategies, many pressure groups carry out acts of civil disobedience-deliberately refusing to follow a controversial law in order to remove it. This happened in the 1990s to get rid of the poll tax, and also more recently in 2004 where advocates of Fox Hunting refused to follow the hunting ban. Acts of civil disobedience have been known to work in the past-Mohandas GandhiÕs non-violent protests against the British in the 1940s eventually won IndiaÕs independence. Also, many illegal and dangerous actions have been taken, such as Fathers 4 Justice activists climbing on Buckingham Palace dressed as superheroes, or when coloured flour was thrown at the then Prime Minister Tony Blair by two Fathers 4 Justice activists.

            Pressure groups, like political parties, can also boycott certain companies and organisations. This is often an incredibly powerful tactic, as if they can generate enough support then the organisation will have no choice but to back down. This happened in 1995, where Greenpeace and other pressure groups organised a Europe-wide boycott of the oil company Shell because of their handling of a disused oil platform.

            So, pressure groups use a variety of tactics to influence Government policy. To illustrate this more effectively, I will now use the example of CAAT as a case study of how pressure groups can influence government.


Campaign Against Arms Trade-History and purpose


Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is a pressure group, set up in 1974, that seeks to reduce and eventually end UK exports of weapons to other countries, as well as end government support for arms traders and general disarmament. CAAT believes that by the UK funding trading in weaponry with other countries, they are simply creating more problems in the world and militarising politics. They believe that differences should be resolved through the United Nations and through diplomacy, instead of through force. They also think that the UK should be leading the way in democratic values by supporting multilateral disarmament. This issue arose because of dubious dealings with the Middle East during the 1970s, which was in the middle of a widespread conflict. Eventually, the Soviet Union became involved and the West helped supply groups like the Taliban with weapons to fight the Communist forces. This has, arguably, backfired in recent years according to many critics, who say that the weapons supplied to these countries during the Ō70s are now being used against the ŌCoalition of the WillingÕ in Iraq and Afghanistan. Due to its methods and relatively small member base, CAAT can be described as an Outsider Cause group.





CAAT has a very loose and undefined structure. They can be called a conglomerate of different groups, such as Church and University organisations, who all rally under the CAAT group in order to have a sense of unity. There is no formal leadership and no hierarchical structure. All members can donate whatever they wish to the campaign, and in this way the group is very pluralistic. All members have a say in the maintenance of CAAT, and they can all get involved in some way. However, this does have its downsides- without a formal leadership; it is very difficult for them to be taken seriously as they have no real spokesperson or leader to represent them. However, they also have international links with other pressure groups, making them quite a potent force, and they helped to found the European Network Against Arms Trade.




CAAT is strictly non-violent and peaceful. They believe that they have to set a good example to others because they are campaigning for disarmament; if they were seen to be militant then they would be seen as hypocritical. There are strict guidelines for protestors, who must not resort to being offensive or violent, even in the face of violent opponents. They tend not to be threatening or offensive, even when partaking in Civil disobedience, in order to maintain their non-violent and peaceful image.

            CAATÕs main tactics include staging mass peaceful protests, writing letters to policy makers, and boycotting businesses. For example, if a company was secretly selling arms abroad, then CAAT would begin a boycotting campaign against them. They have also in the past instigated legal actions against certain companies for them acting above the law.


Previous campaigns


CAAT has instigated many successful and unsuccessful campaigns in its history. One of its most successful and longest lasting campaigns was against the Government arms trading branch, DESO, or the Defence Exports Services Organisation. This was a branch of the Government with roughly 500 civil servants working for it in the Ministry of Defence. Its role was to locate potential buyers of weapons and then advise arms exporters on the deals, helping them to secure it. The main complaints against this branch of the government was that it was not interested in Human rights or whether the country was in conflict or not; they were simply trying to make a profit, no matter what the cost. CAAT and other groups believe that the government should not be involved in or support the sale of arms internationally. CAAT led a massive campaign to close DESO by applying pressure at Whitehall through protests and letters, among other things. They believed that if it was shown that DESO was a waste of resources then it would be scrapped in the next Spending Review. Luckily, their campaign was successful, and Gordon Brown announced in 2007 that they would be closing DESO permanently. This was a great success for the pressure group, as they had been campaigning for DESOÕs closure since they were formed in 1974.


Another campaign currently going on involves the arms trader BAE and its dealings with Saudi Arabia. BAE Systems had supplied Saudi Arabia, a country with terrible Human Rights records, with Eurofighter Typhoon military aircraft, in return for hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil. This sparked massive controversy, and led to a Government investigation into the deals. However, this investigation was dropped soon after, as it was argued that the benefits to the UK outweighed the need for an investigation. For CAAT and other pressure groups, this was a complete outrage, and they were granted a Judicial Review for the decision to drop the investigation, which is taking place on the 14th and 15th February 2008 in the High Court. This has been another very successful campaign for CAAT, as they have gained publicity and they may even be able to completely stop arms trade with Saudi Arabia through this judicial review.




Overall then, parties and pressure groups differ greatly in both their tactics, organisations, and purposes. Political parties seek to form a Government and change policy that way, while pressure groups seek to influence the current government through both direct and indirect action. Pressure groups usually focus on a single issue and have an undemocratic or pluralistic structure, while political parties cover a wide range of issues and have an elected leadership. The pressure group of CAAT is a prime example of an outsider cause group that has run several campaigns to end arms trade in the UK in order to promote international peace and stability, and their methods include protests and lobbying.




Mark Garnett and Philip Lynch-AS UK Government and Politics-Philip Allan Updates-October 2005


J. Martin-The English Legal System-Hodder Arnold-2007