Amid a shrinking Commons, let’s stand up for the backbencher

Katie Ghose, former Chief Executive

Posted on the 18th November 2016

This article was first published on

A steady rise in independent-minded MPs has been a positive feature of Westminster life in recent years. Parliament has always had its share of mavericks and their ranks have been refreshed by backbenchers who entered the Commons in 2015. This Parliament Week is a time to celebrate them. But this year in particular, it’s a time to stick up for them, too.

The backbencher, unbound by the restrictions of ministerial office or a whip’s job to maintain party discipline, is an under-appreciated part of good democracy – often flying in the face of a public view that ‘politicians are all the same’. Yet as South Cambridgeshire MP Heidi Allen told Westminster Hour this week, ‘most came to make a difference, not just toe the party line’.

Yet that role is at risk. The government’s plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, in tandem with a boundary review, presents a real threat to the healthy balance between those who govern and those who scrutinise.

Between 1900 and 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, the proportion of pay-roll MPs rose from 6% to 19%. Since then, it has crept up to 21%. Our research shows that if nothing changes after the cut in MPs, this figure will be nearly a quarter (23%) in the next Parliament. Why does this matter?

Firstly, independent-minded backbenchers play a vital role, both in speaking freely from the backbenches and in filling increasingly powerful roles of select committee chairs. Their unseen efforts matter too, working quietly across party lines on all-party groups and committees, to bring to light important issues or legislative problems. Culling MPs without also capping the number who serve on the PM’s payroll is a bad move for parliament’s role of scrutiny. But it is also out of step with the government’s commitment to reduce the size of government. As a proportion of MPs, we will actually have a bigger executive than ever.

Another worrying feature is the high proportion of governing party MPs in a government job.  After the boundary review, this could reach 43% of the Conservative’s total – the third highest ratio of frontbenchers to backbenchers in recorded peacetime history. Prime Ministers may fear rebellions as they try to advance legislation, but having a healthy number of their own party as backbenchers is hugely important – not least because they actually have a shot at influencing and may just help to head off ill-thought through measures before they hit the ground.

Of course, boundary reviews are invariably controversial, given their implications for individual MPs, parliamentary hopefuls and parties’ prospects for government. This round is all the more so, given there will be more MPs fighting over fewer seats and concerns about the on-going use of electoral registers as a boundary basis, rather than the more comprehensive population estimate.

But regardless of where lines are drawn on a map, the impact of the reduction in MPs on parliament’s role to hold the government to account must be put in the spotlight. On a recent visit to Canada to take part in the federal government’s consultation on electoral reform, I was struck by the party discipline – far heavier than ours – and extreme centralisation in the PM’s office. Our politics is stronger, the more we can empower politicians to speak up and speak out.

What is the solution? It’s to guarantee a healthy ratio of backbencher to government MPs. We’d suggest a maximum of a fifth of MPs in the pay of the PM. Enshrining a percentage in law is probably the best and most sustainable way to guarantee action across party lines – quite simply to make sure governments of all hues stick to it. Short of this, the government should lead the way by making a commitment on the floor of the House when the boundary review returns to Parliament in 2018.

In the meantime, let’s stand up for the rowdy, rebellious and out-spoken backbencher. We’d be all the poorer without them.  

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