What are the role of backbenchers?
When a new MP enters Parliament it is highly unlikely that he or she will be promoted to a Ministerial or shadow frontbench position.
Most MPs do aspire to these positions and will want to impress the whips, who make recommendations to the party leadership about the more junior of these positions, by being reasonably loyal to the party in votes and by showing their ability in parliamentary discussions.
Other than this, MPs, unlike people in almost any other occupation, have no job description and so have to develop what their role is.
There are two main types of role:-
- MPs look after their constituency and their constituents. In the British system where each MP has an individual constituency, they tend to take the welfare of the constituency and of the constituents, whether or not they voted for them, seriously. In addition there in increasing evidence of what has been called an incumbency factor, so that MPs who get well known and work hard in their constituency get more votes in the next election, over and above any changes in support for their party and, in a marginal constituency, this is vital. MPs therefore take up the problems and issues that individual constituents make them aware of and also become involved in broader local issues such as flooding or a threatened hospital or factory closure.
- Much of the work of Westminster is concerned with policy, whether it is foreign policy, housing policy, taxation policy and so on. MPs seek to become experts and have some influence on particular policy areas in which they have taken an interest. This may be anything from Central America to the problems of people with motor neurone disease. This also has the advantage of demonstrating their ability to cope with a ministerial or shadow minister job.
MPs are able in most instances to adopt these roles without necessarily any conflict with their duty to support their party’s leadership and follow the Whips’ instructions as to how to vote.