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In Westminster parliamentary systems, a backbencher is a member of Parliament (MP) or a legislator who holds no governmental office and is not a frontbench spokesman in the Opposition, being instead simply a member of the "rank and file". The term dates from 1855. [1] The term derives from the fact that they sit physically behind the frontbench in the House of Commons. [2] A backbencher may be a new parliamentary member yet to receive high office, a senior figure dropped from government, someone who for whatever reason is not chosen to sit either in the ministry or the opposition Shadow Ministry, or someone who prefers to be a background influence, not in the spotlight. By extension, those who are not reliable supporters of all of their party's goals and policies and have resigned or been forced to resign may be relegated to the back benches. For example, Clive Lewis becoming a backbencher after resigning from Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet over Brexit, [3] or Boris Johnson who became a backbencher again, after resigning as Foreign Secretary in Theresa May's cabinet, also over Brexit. [4]

Westminster system democratic parliamentary system of government

The Westminster system is a parliamentary system of government developed in the United Kingdom. This term comes from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British Parliament. The system is a series of procedures for operating a legislature. It is used, or was once used, in the national and subnational legislatures of most former British Empire colonies upon gaining responsible government, beginning with the first of the Canadian provinces in 1848 and the six Australian colonies between 1855 and 1890. However, some former colonies have since adopted either the presidential system or a hybrid system as their form of government.

A minister is a politician who heads a government department, making and implementing decisions on policies in conjunction with the other ministers. In some jurisdictions the head of government is also a minister and is designated the "prime minister", "premier", "chief minister", "Chancellor" or other title.

In many parliaments and other similar assemblies, seating is typically arranged in banks or rows, with each political party or caucus grouped together. The spokespeople for each group will often sit at the front of their group, and are then known as being on the frontbench and are described as frontbenchers. Those sitting behind them are known as backbenchers. Independent and minority parties sit to the side or on benches between the two sides, and are referred to as crossbenchers.


In most parliamentary systems, backbenchers individually do not have much power to influence government policy. However, they play a role in providing services to their constituents, in relaying the opinions and concerns of their constituents. For example, asking the government for funding for a project in their constituency. Some backbenchers also sit on parliamentary committees, where legislation is considered in more detail than there is time for on the floor of the House and, thereby, provide input into the legislative process. [5] The Wright Committee reforms introduced in the UK provided backbenchers with much more power in committees, giving Parliament greater control of its agenda, increasing backbench membership in committees vastly. [6] In addition, since backbenchers generally form the vast majority of MPs, collectively they can sometimes exercise considerable power especially in cases where the policies of the government are unpopular or when a governing party is internally split. Backbenchers carry a considerable amount of influence when the government majority is small, for example, Theresa May's government from 2017 onwards has been defeated sixteen times in the House of Commons, whereas, David Cameron's majority government was defeated three times in the House of Commons.

Committee body of one or more persons that is subordinate to a deliberative assembly

A committee is a body of one or more persons that is subordinate to a deliberative assembly. Usually, the assembly sends matters into a committee as a way to explore them more fully than would be possible if the assembly itself were considering them. Committees may have different functions and their type of work differ depending on the type of the organization and its needs.

The Reform of the House of Commons Committee was a Select Committee of the UK Parliament. It was established in 2009 to improve the procedures and relevance of Parliament. It reported on 12 November 2009 and made a number of recommendations, in a document entitled 'Rebuilding the House'.

Theresa May Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

Theresa Mary May is a British politician serving as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Conservative Party since 2016. She served as Home Secretary from 2010 to 2016. May was first elected Member of Parliament (MP) for Maidenhead in 1997. Ideologically, she identifies herself as a one-nation conservative.

In some legislative assemblies, sitting at the back of the chamber is not necessarily associated with having a minor role. In Switzerland, senior figures sit in the back rows in order to have a better overview and be closer to the doors for discussions outside the plenary. In Germany, the party leaders sit in the front row, but there are no designated places for other senior figures. The term backbenchers („Hinterbänkler“) therefore refers to largely unknown MPs without much influence - regardless of where they sit. Originally, the importance of the front rows for the leaders had also to do with the fact that acoustics were often unsatisfactory before microphones were introduced.

Switzerland federal republic in Central Europe

Switzerland, officially the Swiss Confederation, is a country situated in western, central, and southern Europe. It consists of 26 cantons, and the city of Bern is the seat of the federal authorities. The sovereign state is a federal republic bordered by Italy to the south, France to the west, Germany to the north, and Austria and Liechtenstein to the east. Switzerland is a landlocked country geographically divided between the Alps, the Swiss Plateau and the Jura, spanning a total area of 41,285 km2 (15,940 sq mi). While the Alps occupy the greater part of the territory, the Swiss population of approximately 8.5 million people is concentrated mostly on the plateau, where the largest cities are to be found: among them are the two global cities and economic centres Zürich and Geneva.

Germany Federal parliamentary republic in central-western Europe

Germany, officially the Federal Republic of Germany, is a country in Central and Western Europe, lying between the Baltic and North Seas to the north, and the Alps to the south. It borders Denmark to the north, Poland and the Czech Republic to the east, Austria and Switzerland to the south, France to the southwest, and Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands to the west.

The term "backbencher" has also been adopted outside parliamentary systems, such as the United States Congress. While legislative branches in presidential systems do not share the firm front bench/back bench dichotomy of the Westminster system, the term has been used to denote junior legislators, or legislators who are not part of party leadership within a legislative body. [7] When Democrat Tim Ryan of Ohio ran against Nancy Pelosi of California for House Minority Leader in 2016, the Washington Post reported that he "emerged from the backbench — he literally sits on the last bench in the chamber". [8]

United States Congress Legislature of the United States

The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the Federal Government of the United States. The legislature consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Presidential system form of government

A presidential system is a democratic and republican system of government where a head of government leads an executive branch that is separate from the legislative branch. This head of government is in most cases also the head of state, which is called president.

Tim Ryan (Ohio politician) Ohio politician

Timothy John Ryan is an American politician serving as the U.S. Representative for Ohio's 13th congressional district since 2003. The district, numbered as the 17th district from 2003 to 2013, takes in a large swath of northeast Ohio, from Youngstown to Akron. Ryan is a member of the Democratic Party.

Powers and roles of backbenchers in Westminster

The most important backbench role many would argue is that of a constituency representative. Constituents rely heavily on their MPs to represent them in parliament and make sure their concerns are heard and welfare is looked after, whether or not they voted for the MP representing them. Constituents can email their MP's and have meetings with them, raising the issues and concerns they want the government to hear. [9] Without this link many people would find it extremely hard for their voices to be heard fairly by the government. Backbenchers have an important opportunity to raise their constituents concerns directly to the Prime Minister in Prime Ministers Questions. Performing well in this constituency role is vital for backbenchers, as if they aren't prominent names in their party, their performance in their constituency could be a big factor on whether or not they will be re-elected to their seat in the next election.

Prime Ministers Questions constitutional convention of the United Kingdom

Prime Minister's Questions is a constitutional convention in the United Kingdom, currently held as a single session every Wednesday at noon when the House of Commons is sitting, during which the Prime Minister spends around half an hour answering questions from Members of Parliament (MPs).

Backbenchers also have an unofficial agenda setting power, with Opposition Day Debates, Private Members Bills, and Prime Minister Questions available to place items on the Parliamentary agenda which are awkward for the government. There is also the Commons Backbench Business Committee which was created in 2010, this has cross party support and debates matters unlikely to be debated in government time, they formally end a decision with a vote. By the end of the 2010 Coalition Government it had undergone 300 debates, ranging from prisoner voting rights to the Hillsborough Disaster. [10] Furthermore, they have influence as discussed above when they are a member of a committee, these committees provide a perfect opportunity for backbenchers to have their voices heard in the legislative process. It usually proves difficult for backbenchers to be involved and have direct input in the legislative process when they are not involved in these activities.

A private members' bill (PMB) in the Parliament of the United Kingdom is a type of public bill that can be introduced by either members of the House of Commons or House of Lords who are not Ministers. Less parliamentary time is given to such bills and as a result only a minority of PMBs actually become law. Such bills can be used however to create publicity for a cause or issue and can affect legislation indirectly. There are three methods by which a private members' bill can be introduced:

The Backbench Business Committee of the British House of Commons was created on 15 June 2010 through the adoption of a new standing order. It was created soon after 2010 general election, but had been proposed during the previous Parliament by the Wright Committee on Reform of the House of Commons in its report of 12 November 2009.

Hillsborough disaster Incident which occurred during the FA Cup semi-final match in 1989

The Hillsborough disaster was a fatal crush of people during an FA Cup semi-final football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England, on 15 April 1989. With 96 fatalities and 766 injuries, it remains the worst disaster in British sporting history. The crush occurred in the two standing-only central pens in the Leppings Lane stand, allocated to Liverpool supporters. Shortly before kick-off, in an attempt to ease overcrowding outside the entrance turnstiles, the police match commander, chief superintendent David Duckenfield, ordered exit gate C to be opened, leading to an influx of even more supporters to the already overcrowded central pens.

There has been much speculation on the influence backbenchers actually hold in Parliament. Many believe backbenchers hold little to no influence, however, there has been much research to suggest they have a significant background influence. For example, Meg Russell analysed UK government bills and found that successful amendments were due to Parliamentary pressure, 60% of these being substantive. [11] Proving the majority of legislation undergoes unofficial parliamentary pressure. Meg Russell also analysed the impact of the Wright Committee Reforms and whether it strengthened backbench power and influence. She found that the Wright Committee led to a significant reduction in governmental and whips hold over the Commons agenda. Finding that backbenchers have more independence and power because of these reforms, and giving them far more opportunity to set agendas and have their voices heard in Parliament. [12] Furthermore, Louise Thompson found that introducing oral evidence into committees scrutinising government bills had a significant impact on backbench influence. Acting as a vehicle for the formulation of significant changes to government Bills, additional opposition scrutiny, and a debating tool. Oral evidence was most identified in undertakings given by ministers to committee members. Whereas, the number of amendments formally accepted by the government at committee stages is low. It found 89% occasions in which oral evidence had a direct impact on bills. [13] This again suggests that backbenchers exert influence in the background of the Westminster legislation process. Therefore, it can be seen that although backbenchers have little official legislation powers in Parliament, they often exert significant background influence on the legislative process.

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  1. "Backbench", Merriam-Webster Dictionary; accessed 2013.09.30.
  2. "BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | Backbencher". Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  3. Stewart, Heather; Asthana, Anushka (2017-02-09). "Clive Lewis quits shadow cabinet as Brexit bill passes with huge majority". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-11-26.
  4. "Boris Johnson's resignation letter and May's reply in full". BBC News. 2018-07-09. Retrieved 2019-04-17.
  5. Searing, Donald (July 1995). "Backbench and Leadership Roles in The House of Commons". Parliamentary Affairs. 48 (3): 418–437. doi:10.1093/ via Oxford Academic.
  6. Heffernan, Richard; Hay, Colin; Russell, Meg; Cowley, Philip (2016). Developments in British Politics 10. doi:10.1057/978-1-137-49475-7. ISBN   978-1-137-49473-3.
  7. Minnesota Progressive Project
  8. Kane, Paul; O'Keefe, Ed (2016-11-30). "Nancy Pelosi beats back challenge, is chosen as House Democratic leader". Washington Post.
  9. Radice, Lisanne (1990). Member of Parliament: The Job of a Backbencher. Basingstoke : Macmillan. pp. 141–154. ISBN   978-0333491218.
  10. Russell, Meg (2010). Developments In British Politics. London: Palgrave. pp. 110–111. ISBN   9781137494740.
  11. Russell, Meg; Gover, Daniel; Wollter, Kristina (April 2016). "Does the Executive Dominate the Westminster Legislative Process?: Six Reasons for Doubt". Parliamentary Affairs. 69 (2): 286–309. doi:10.1093/pa/gsv016.
  12. Russell, Meg (October 2011). "'Never Allow A Crisis To Go To Waste': The Wright Committee Reforms to Strengthen the House of Commons". Parliamentary Affairs. 64 (4): 612–633. doi:10.1093/pa/gsr026 via Oxford Academic.
  13. Thompson, Louise (March 2014). "Evidence taking under the microscope: How has oral evidence affected the scrutiny of legislation in House of Commons committees?". British Politics. 9 (4): 385–400. doi:10.1057/bp.2014.2.