How important are backbenchers?

Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who do not have ministerial roles, be this in the Government or as part of the Shadow Cabinet. Their importance is highly debatable, with their potential for impact upon the legislative cycle being weighed up against the significant impact party politics, patronage and discipline has on mediating these powers. Ultimately, this essay shall conclude that backbenchers only have any real or significant importance beyond their constituency roles where they band together to produce certain outcomes, such as in backbench rebellions.One way in which backbenchers may be seen to be important is via their role in the policy and legislative cycles. Backbenchers can impact policymaking in numerous ways, including by introducing Private Members Bills to parliament. Examples of historically significant Private Member’s Bills may include the 1967 Abortion Act. Additionally, backbenchers have the opportunity to partake in Parliamentary Committees, particularly where there is a bill in keeping with their interests or expertise. These can alter the details of legislation. Similarly, backbechers have the ability to alter the substanative content of legislation during the debates which take place at the Second Reading of a given bill. Finally, at the voting stage a backbench rebellion has the potential to overthrow a given piece of legislation – for example,

However, arguably the significance of the impact backbenchers can have upon policy is seriously limited by factors such as party discipline and patronage. The Whip system generally ensures that almost all bills which the government wants to pass through parliament will do as such, and private members bills are rarely timetabled in to debate. The significance of party discipline is likely best seen with the fact that from 1997 to 2010, only 7 government-backed bills failed to pass through parliament. This is also linked to the system of party patronage which ensures loyalty. Due to the principle of collective ministerial responsibility, no minister can be publically seen to disagree with the government. As such, “payroll votes” are created whereby the government essentially ‘buys’ significant support by giving backbenchers ministerial role. This is seen as, for instance, there are currently over 100 junior ministerial roles and 20 Whip or Assistant whip positions across both houses of parliamentary.

An alternative way in which backbenchers may be seen as important is via their role of government scrutiny, with the ability to hold the government to account. This role is most significant in Departmental Select Committees. 30-40% of Select Committee suggestions are ultimately taken up by the government. One example of change caused by a Select Committee was the recent resignation of Charlotte Hogg from the post of Deputy Governor of the Bank of England after the Treasury Select Committee lauded her failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest of her brother’s employment at Barclays to the Bank. Other forms of scrutiny from backbenchers may include putting pressure on the government to introduce policy changes – a lack of support from backbenchers combined with their potential to stir up opposition in the media can force the government to make a U-turrn. This was the case with Phillip Hammond’s 2017 Spring Budget, whereby pressure from Tory backbenchers over the fact the policy went against the party’s manifesto caused him to withdraw the proposal to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed.

However, the ability of backbencher scrutiny to have an impact upon policy is limited. Evidenty, the vast majority of Select Committee suggestions are ignored – for instance, David Cameron directly ignored Select Committee reports on drug legislation when introducing a bill on the matter. Additionally, Select Committees lack the ability to scrutinise legislation, and election to the position of chair or selection for the role is impacted by party politics, even if it is anonymous and no longer subject to the whip. The best people are arguably not always therefore chosen, leading to a large amount of consensus politics within Committees- for instance, Ken Livingstone, despite his large amount of experience within local government, never chaired a select committee, likely due to his unpopularity with the party bosses

Ultimately, it is evident that the importance of backbenchers is largely limited by the strength of the Executive to exercise its will. Evidenlty, the idiom that legislation is passed through, rather than by, parliament appears to be true; backbenchers are rarely able to impact outcomes, and when they do this tends to be only when they can work together as a large body to provide opposition

Tracey Mwaniki

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