How are effective are Backbench MPs?

8 August 2016

One of the main functions of backbench MPs is scrutinize the government and hold them to account via different ways, and it is this function which proves them to be highly effective. Their role in Parliament ensures and strengthens the democratic legitimacy of the executive, thus giving government the authority and right to exercise political power. Another key role of backbench MPs is to act as cross-section of the larger society and therefore represent their interests in Parliament.

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However, the increase of power held by the government further supports the Burkean view that an “elective dictatorship” has formed considerably in the UK political system. In addition to this, many people have argued that backbench MPs have limited power in actually calling the government to account due to the party system, which ensures that MPs are dictated by ministers and party whips – who use persuasive methods (the promise of promotions or the threat of expulsion/demotion) reduce the effectiveness within the political system.

There are both arguments for and against the effectiveness of backbench MPs, however it is debatable as to which outweighs the other. It can be argued that Backbench MPs are effective due to their role working on Select Committees. Whilst working on Select Committees, backbenchers check and report on areas ranging from the work of government departments to economic affairs. This over-seeing and examination of executive work provides effective and detailed scrutiny.

The scrutinizing of the government ensures its democratic legitimacy and therefore gives it the authority and right to exercise political power . Through Select Committees, backbench MPs have proven to be effective because their close examination of the execute has led to action being taken. An example of this is George Osborne’s 2012 Budget which propose a “Pasty-Tax” on UK hot, baked goods. Following intense scrutiny from the Treasury Select Committee, Osborne scrapped his plan of the unpopular taxation.

This retraction of the proposal shows a victory for backbench pressure, and it conveys how the scrutiny can improve the government in the interest of larger society – thus proving the effectiveness of backbenchers . Having said this, the power of Select Committees is quite limited and, in order to be more effective, they need to gain more authority in order to make substantial change. The reasoning behind this is that the government maintains the power to ignore the reports presented to them by Select Committees.

An example of this was when David Cameron did not act upon and cast aside the report on drug legalisation which was written by the Home Affairs Select Committee. This ultimately undermines the effectiveness of committees because although they provide sufficient scrutiny, the government is not legally bound to implement any changes suggested to them. In addition to this, Select Committees also lack the authority to punish lying or evasive ministers. Parliamentary debates have also proven backbenchers to be very effective, as they increase the accountability of the executive.

The Backbench Business Committee (or the BBC) presents an opportunity to backbench members to bring forward debates of their choice, which means that they are able to hold government ministers to account and probe political action. A key example of a debate that attracted ministers’ attention was the Badger Cull Debate of 2012, which was later adopted by the government for action. This shows how effective backbenchers are via the fact that their debates present issues to the government which can then lead to legislation being made.

Similarly to Select Committees, the government still withholds the power to ignore and cast-aside backbench business motions, and they can also be easily defeated by party whips. An example of how the government ignore the suggestions made by the BBC is the EU Referendum Debate, which was easily defeated on the floor of the House despite having a sizeable Tory rebellion. There is also evidence which strongly suggests that backbench MPs are effective due to the fact that they are members of Parliament.

With Parliament being sovereign and therefore the supreme law making authority, backbenchers are less pressured to toe the party line, and as a result are more able to carry out constituency duties. They have more confidence to defy the party whip and rebel against the party line, which increases the effectiveness of backbench MPs because they vote in accordance to what they think is in the best interest of society, rather than having to conform to party whip pressure.

An example of backbench rebellion against the party line is in 2013 when the government were defeated on the EU Budget Debate because 53 Conservative backbenchers rebelled against the party line and preferred a cut. As a result of this, Cameron was forced to negotiate with Europe. Despite their ability to rebel, backbench MPs are still controlled by party whips which is shown via the fact that the government has won the vote on all major legislation.

It could be argued that backbenchers have not exercised their opportunity to rebel against the party line enough to provide effective checks and balances on the executive – shown through the government being defeated only 7 times since 1997. Overall, these government victories in Parliament show that the government majority controlled by party whips still maintain lots of control over backbenchers. The current Coalition government means that there is a reduced majority in the government which, as a result, has increased the effectiveness of backbenchers.

Due to the fact that the government’s majority is reliant on agreement across two political parties, a small backbench rebellion can threaten a government defeat over a small, controversial issue. This has happened on multiple occasions showing the effectiveness that backbenchers can have. Conservative backbenchers withdrew support and the initiative had to be dropped, when the Lords Reform was raised within Parliament. A similar result occurred when the Liberal Democrats withdrew their support from the issue surrounding boundary changes of the constituencies.

As mentioned previously, the EU Budget Debate cause a government defeat following pressure from backbenchers on select committees. However, once again the government has managed to pass the vast majority of its flagship programs. Schemes like scrapping the spare-bedroom subsidy, welfare caps, cuts to legal aid and reductions in policing numbers all add up to sweeping public sector cuts that have become very unpopular. The fact that the government has passed this program with little problems in Parliament shows that the government still has a high control over backbenchers on a wide variety of issues.

Backbench MPs are also deemed effective through their role of representing the interests of their constituents. Inside Parliament, backbenchers scrutinise and amend bills and, as mentioned before, they participate in debates. Outside of Parliament, they work in their constituency, communicating with their constituents by writing letters, emails and replying to phone calls. Often MPs will hold ‘surgeries’ where constituents can ask questions or get help with problems. By doing these things, they ensure that they have regular contact with their constituents so that they can accurately represent their views and interests within Parliament.

Having said this, many people have stated that backbench MPs do not allow Parliament be fully representative of larger society due to the fact that they themselves do not represent the nation – for example: unlike many other western European Parliaments which have a much higher percentage, only 22% of UK MPs are female. Similarly, 90% of MPs come from either upper- or middle-class backgrounds and 35% of these were privately educated, which is drastically higher than the 7% of the British population who attended fee-paying schools.

It’s this which supports the Burkean view of “elective dictatorship”, meaning that backbench MPs are not socially representative of the larger society, and therefore have to use their own judgement when acting on the behalf of their constituents. From this it can then be argued that backbench MPs ineffectively carry out their representative function. Although having said this, a counter argument to this could be that male MPs can efficiently represent women just as effectively as female MPs can.

In conclusion, due to the fact that backbench MPs suggestions/motions can be ignored by government, the pressure to ‘toe-the-party-line’ from party whips and the lack of representation, it can be argued that backbench MPs are not effective. However, with the recent formation of the 2010 Coalition government, certain reforms predict backbench MPs becoming more effective. For example: the House Business Committee predicted to be opened within 2013 from the Coalition, in which backbench MPs will have further control over the agenda in the House of Commons.

It is also more apparent the powers of backbench MPs are growing under the Coalition, in which the party systems appears neater and party whips less powerful. This is shown through the recent statement of a Tory backbench MP which stated that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was “a posh boy” who “doesn’t know the price of milk”. This is sufficient proof that backbenchers are becoming more effective in carrying out the key function of holding the government to account under the 2010 Coalition.

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