BACKBENCHER. A nonministerial member of a parliamentary assembly. The term is characteristically British in origin and usage and is used to distinguish the majority of elected members of a parliament from "frontbenchers," that is, those who sit on the front or ministerial benches, or "treasury" benches, as they are often termed, in reference to their primary responsibility for controling public expenditure. Frontbenchers occupy their prominent spot in recognition of their executive status as cabinet or junior ministers.
The term "private member" is the traditional description of a backbencher, used by way of contrast to government member or minister. Private members' business is that category of parliamentary business that is not sponsored by the government of the day, and it allows backbenchers to raise for parliamentary consideration items of local interest, representing particular constituents, or of wider community interest where the national parties have yet to declare a firm policy. The standard academic analysis of backbenchers' influence tends to focus on their capacity to use opportunities for private members' business, or their contribution to the business of the House through participation on parliamentary committees. This latter activity lends itself to studies of backbench specialization, where members might build up a profile of expertise on a defined span of policy or administrative matters through their committee assignments (Judge 1981: pp. 186-203).
There are no set parliamentary rules through which backbenchers become frontbenchers; mechanisms of appointment vary with the conventions of different political parties. The rise to executive office is usually associated with support for the chief or prime minister, who either personally or through party ballot arranges for a selection of frontbenchers from the pool of parliamentarians. Leading members of an opposition party or coalition of opposition parties are now termed "opposition frontbenchers" (or "shadow ministers"), in contrast to "opposition backbenchers." Analysts claim that the alliance between the two frontbenches is stronger than the separation between executive government and the legislature: Backbenchers alone have a vested interest in seeking "to hold, or redress, the Executive-Legislative balance in favour of the legislature," ( Reid 1966: pp. 25-27).
Backbenchers' institutional interests are not necessarily aligned with those of either set of frontbenchers; their situations are common, regardless of party. Even though the two frontbenches struggle over the reins of government, backbenchers struggle to get access to even basic information about ministerial and bureaucratic performance. Not that they can be taken for granted: Party leaders appreciate the latent power of the backbench, which can bring down even serving prime ministers, like Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Robert Hawke in Australia. Research on "backbench revolt" indicates that even ministries with strong parliamentary majorities can expect to have government legislative proposals defeated or substantially amended by disaffected backbenchers (see, e.g., Norton 1993: pp. 80-83). Some parliamentary parties, as in Canada, are extending their leadership selection process to incorporate conventions of extraparliamentary membership, which effectively frees the parliamentary leadership from immediate dependence on the backbench.
Backbenchers face their own selection uncertainties and must retain the confidence of party preselection officials in their own electorate. The proliferation of local members of parliament's "surgeries" illustrates the abiding concern with community consultation, which can understandably displace competing parliamentary duties. Carefully managed, local party and electorate confidence can give backbenchers a sphere of independence against parliamentary leaders.
The balance of power, however, rests with the frontbench leadership, which exercises two kinds of discipline over backbenchers. First, it can make or break chances of promotion to ministerial or shadow ministerial positions. Even in large parliaments like that in Britain, a quarter to a third of a governing party's members are likely to hold some form of ministerial office. Given the turnover at the top, chances are that by playing it safe a backbencher will secure a ministerial promotion. Even in those parties in which the parliamentary party elects the ministry, the leaders still retain power over portfolio selection, so unwelcome arrivals can be allocated unwelcome ministerial tasks.
Second, the leadership has "the party whips" at their disposal, tasked with marshaling the backbench along ministerially desired debating and voting lines. The British term "lobby fodder" accurately describes the whip's perspective on the backbench. Free, or "unwhipped" votes by which backbenchers may make up their own minds are increasingly rare in parties intent on obtaining or retaining government.
Opportunities available to private members to promote their own interests are limited by competing demands of party frontbenchers. Government backbenchers might play an important part in putting politically convenient parliamentary questions to ministers, but opposition backbenchers face competing interests from their own shadow frontbench. The test case of backbenchers' influence concerns their ability to initiate or amend legislation. United Kingdom figures suggest that government backbenchers are almost twice as likely to achieve legislative amendments as are opposition backbenchers ( Norton 1993: p. 83). More latitude and perhaps greater real control is found in internal party meetings, where backbenchers can openly speak their minds.