Pressure Groups

Pressure groups play an integral role in British society and politics. You might have come across a pressure group at one point or another during your life – whether online or in the public sphere. However, some pressure groups operate behind closed doors and remain largely out of view of the general public. This article aims to broaden your knowledge and understanding of pressure groups and provide you with a better idea of how they shape policies from inside and outside of government. 

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Table of contents

    What is the meaning of a pressure group?

    Pressure groups exist at different levels of government such as local, regional, national, and international levels. Compared to political parties, there are more pressure groups present in the UK.

    A pressure group is an organised group of people that aim to influence the policies and actions of the government in favour of a specific cause or movement.

    Social movements are similar to pressure groups but they lack the organisational structure.

    Pressure groups were more common in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, there are new politics involved with pressure groups. These politics have been shaped by more social and grassroots movements, protests, and direct action.

    Key features of pressure groups

    1. Pressure groups have a narrow issue focus, sometimes even a single issue.

    2. Pressure groups unite over a shared cause or belief rather than a shared ideology.

    3. Pressure groups exert influence from the outside rather than attempting to win government power.

    How are pressure groups different from political parties?

    Political parties tend to have a broad focus encompassing various issues. On the other hand, pressure groups tend to focus on a single issue. Because of this, there are more pressure groups than there are political parties.

    For example, an environmental group may focus on changing government policy on issues related to climate change.

    Another difference is that pressure groups do not seek political office. Instead, they exercise influence from the outside. Although they have their differences, both pressure groups and political parties may form part of a broader social movement.

    The Labour Movement in the United Kingdom encompasses both the Labour Party and trade unions.

    What are the different types of pressure groups?

    There are four main pressure groups, insider and outsider pressure groups and sectional and promotional groups. Below are the definitions of these four types of pressure groups. We will be looking at more specific examples later in this article.

    Insider groupsOutsider groups

    The government consults the insider groups regularly and is quite literally inside the decision-making process. Some groups are high profile whilst others keep a fairly lower low profile. One way to easily spot an insider group is to look at how compatible their policies are with government policy. If their policies are compatible with government policy, the government will likely want to work with them.

    Outsider groups have no special links to government, resorting to public opinion campaigns. Because they have no influence from within the government, many of their campaigns tend to be run on social media and gain attention that way.

    Sectional groupPromotional groups

    Sectional groups are also known as interest groups. They represent a particular section of society such as workers, religious groups, or employees for example. These groups are chiefly concerned with advancing the interests of their members. Thus, membership in this type of pressure group is limited to people who fall into that ‘section’ of society. Thus, members are motivated by self-interest.

    Promotional groups are also known as cause groups. These groups coalesce around a set of shared attitudes or values. They, too, are concerned with advancing causes, but do so based on ideals and principles, as members of these groups are motivated by moral or altruistic concerns and open membership.

    Table 1 - Types of Pressure Groups

    It is important to note some pressure groups have both sectional and promotional characteristics, and members may have motivations for either. Additionally, some pressure groups can hide sectional motivations by adopting the language of a promotional group. The status of any pressure group may change over time.

    What are the functions of pressure groups?

    Now that we have described some of the different types of pressure groups, let's take a look at how they affect the political system in the UK.

    Political participation

    In the UK, more people belong to pressure groups than they do political parties. They are still engaging in politics, albeit not with political parties. Therefore, pressure groups hold a crucial function in encouraging political participation.


    Representation applies most to sectional groups.

    For example, unions such as the National Union for Teachers hold the function of representing the best interests of teachers. However, representation is a function of all pressure groups – even if they are not directly representing the personal interests of members, they are representing causes their members care about.

    Policy formation

    In particular, some groups (insider groups in particular) working with the government have helped with policy formation.

    For example, the National Farmers Union of England and Wales (NFU) helped the government during the foot and mouth disease crisis.

    Policy implementation

    Leading on from policy formation is policy implementation.

    Again, the NFU has worked with the Department for Rural Affairs in implementing policies related to animal welfare and disease control.


    Another function of pressure groups is the general education of the public. Pressure groups run many of their campaigns on social media, which makes it easy for the public to access education and awareness-raising material.

    Table 2 - Functions of Pressure Groups

    What are some examples of pressure groups?

    We have looked in detail at the definitions and functions of different pressure groups. It is also essential to be aware of specific examples for each type of pressure group.

    Insider groups examples

    As mentioned above, insider groups greatly affect policy decisions in the UK through regular interactions with the government. Below are some examples of high-profile pressure groups.

    The British Medical Association

    The British Medical Association is a high-profile pressure group that operates both on mass media and behind the scenes with the government. They are a Trade Union for Doctors, so they also fall under the sectional group category and an insider group due to their work with the government.

    Pressure groups Image of plaque that reads British Medical Association BMA House StudySmarterFig. 1 - British Medical Association House in Tavistock square, London

    The Commission for Equality and Human Rights

    The Commission for Equality and Human rights is a good example of an insider group as the group's existence depends on the government. They promote and uphold human rights ideals and laws across England, Scotland and Wales.

    Pressure Groups Logo with two bold horizontal parallel dark lines on the left and the words Equality and human rights commission on the right StudySmarterFig. 2 - Logo of the Equality and Human rights commission

    Outsider group examples

    Outsider groups don't have specific ties to the government and must use public campaigns in order to gain supporters for their cause. Below are some examples of outsider groups.

    The Animal Liberation Front (ALF)

    The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) is so far removed from the government that some have described them as extremist. For example, in 2006, members of the ALF took responsibility for a firebomb attack on Lynn Fairbanks, a UCLA researcher. Their main purpose is to protest against animal cruelty, and they describe themselves as a decentralised organisation.

    The Countryside Alliance

    The Countryside Alliance is another example of an outsider group. This pressure group campaigns on behalf of field sports, including hunting, shooting, and fishing in rural communities. This group's ideology directly contradicts some government policies, including the illegal hunting of foxes.

    Sectional group examples

    Sectional groups, also known as interest groups, represent a certain group within society such as teachers, labourers, or specific religions. Take a look at the examples below to get a better understanding of sectional groups and their causes.

    The National Education Union (NEU)

    The National Education Union (NEU) is a sectional pressure group formed in 2017. It is the largest education union in Europe and represents more than 460,000 members.

    The Confederation of British Industry (CBI)

    The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) also works on behalf of particular interests. On its website, CBI claims to advocate for 190,000 businesses. They also state they comprise around 1,500 direct members and 188,500 non-members.

    Pressure Groups Confederation of British Industry Logo StudySmarterFig. 3 - Logo for the Confederation of British Industry

    Promotional group examples

    Promotional groups are centered around specific causes and aim to further their movement through philanthropy and service. There are usually no membership requirements to join these groups.

    The Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB)

    The Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) is an example of a promotional group. They are the UK's largest nature conservation charity and aim to protect and conserve nature and wildlife.

    The Red Cross

    The Red Cross is also an example of a non-governmental organisation that falls under a promotional group. They describe themselves as UK's neutral and impartial global humanitarian network. They currently have over 17,200 volunteers and 3,400 staff.

    Pressure Groups British Red Cross Logo StudySmarterFig. 4 - Logo of the British Red Cross

    Pressure groups in the UK

    There are three main ways that pressure groups in the UK achieve their aims. These are through direct action, lobbying, and strikes.

    Direct action: direct action is sometimes through civil disobedience. For example, Brian Haw held a 5-year anti-war vigil outside Parliament. Another example is Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a group campaigning since 1999 to stop animal testing. They subjected staff to harassment and intimidation.

    Lobbying: this method targets ministers and civil servants who hold knowledge or power within the policy area the pressure group wants to influence. For example, the Royal College of Nursing frequently visits the Department of Health.

    Strikes: another method used in the UK is strikes or work stoppages. Transport for London (TFL) lost £13m in fares due to Tube strikes resulting from two strikes in April 2022. About 10,000 workers from the Rail Union RMT walked out at midnight on 1 March and 3 March in a dispute over job losses and pensions.

    In 2017, 40—50% of UK citizens belonged to a voluntary organisation, compared to only 1% belonging to a political party.

    Pressure Groups - Key takeaways

    • A pressure group is an organised group of people that aim to influence the policies and actions of the government.

    • Critical functions of pressure groups include political participation, representation, education, policy formation and policy implementation.

    • Four main types of pressure groups include insider and outsider pressure groups and sectional and promotional groups.

    • The British Medical Association is a high-profile pressure group that operates both on mass media and behind the scenes with the government. They are an insider, and sectional group, so they are a vital example showing how pressure groups can fall under more than one category.

    • Pressure groups in the UK use direct action, lobbying, and strikes as just some ways to achieve their aims.


    1. Table 1 - Types of Pressure Groups
    2. Table 2 - Functions of Pressure Groups
    3. Fig. 1 - Facade BMA Detail ( by Archibald Tuttle ( licenced by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    4. Fig. 2 - EHRC Logo ( by Ehrc123 ( licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    5. Fig. 3 - CBI brand logo ( by Robin Juste Emery ( licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Pressure Groups

    What are the functions of a pressure group?

    Critical functions of pressure groups include political participation, representation, education, policy formation, and policy implementation.

    What is a pressure group?

    A pressure group is an organised group of people that aim to influence the policies and actions of the government.

    What are the 4 types of pressure groups?

    Four main pressure groups include insider and outsider pressure groups and sectional and promotional groups.

    How do pressure groups and movements strengthen democracy?

    Pressure groups and movements strengthen democracy by encouraging political participation and educating the public on political issues.

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