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What do Backbench MPs do?

About a third of MPs are Government Ministers or have Opposition responsibility for shadowing Ministers, reacting to their proposals and developing alternative policies. The rest of MPs are backbenchers so an important question is, “What do Backbench MPs do?”.

The only tradition to call on for this is that of Edmund Burke. Burke was an independent minded politician who represented Bristol in the late 18th century.

He argued that an MP was a representative of his constituency, chosen by the voters for his ability and knowledge, not a delegate to be mandated by the voters as to how he should vote.

He said that he would raise issues of concern to Bristol in Parliament but on the key matters of the day would use his independent judgement as to what was best for the nation and the various groups of the population in deciding how to vote.

The voters could accept or reject him at the next election, though actually they rejected him mainly because of his support for free trade with Ireland which was unpopular with Bristol’s commercial interests.

MPs still quote Burke when they want to follow a course of action that is different to what the voters or their constituency party wants but Burke was an MP before the existence of political parties.

There is a view that there was a golden age of Parliament in the mid 19th century when MPs did listen to debates and make up their own minds without party pressure, though there is little research on this period to prove that this was so.

Certainly MPs are now told how to vote by the Party Whips and, although rebellions are now more frequent, they rarely vote against the party line. There are very few free votes where MPs do not receive an instruction on how to vote and, even then, the Whips may exert informal pressure.

The changing role of the Backbencher

MPs have no job description unlike people who start a job in almost any other occupation and so there is no requirement for an MP to do anything, so that backbench MPs, in practice, construct a role for themselves. This has changed over time.

Interwar and immediately post-war, although there were the ‘rising stars’ who became the party leaders and ministers, many MPs came to Parliament in their late 40s and 50s after a career elsewhere as farmers, teachers, business leaders, trade union officials and so on.

Selection as a candidate was a recognition of their involvement with the party over a number of years and they had no desire to aspire to ministerial office. In a safe seat they were there until they retired and even in a marginal the local party was generally well organised enough to run the general election for them.

Once in Parliament there main concern was to support their party, intervene on those areas that they understood, as a result of their former career, and, otherwise, enjoy just being part of the House of Commons.

Voting rebellions were rare. From their experience and contacts in the constituency or elsewhere they had a feeling for what public opinion was and told the Whips if their party went too far from what was popular in the country.

Backbenchers from the 1970s+

From the 1970s there were was a gradual change. MPs tended to come into Parliament younger and were university educated with clearer views on the main policy issues and often with experience in policy with an interest group or as a leader of a local council or by working for a research organisation.

They almost all aspired to rise up the ministerial ladder but at the same time were more ready to disagree with the party leadership over some policy issues.

With the decline of party membership they had to play a greater role in the constituency and a more demanding electorate, many of whom were also better educated, are more ready to contact their MP about local or personal problems or about national issues.

The leadership of the parties came to depend less on backbench MPs to relay public opinion as more sophisticated opinion polling and the use of focus groups gave them the information that they needed.