A “backbencher” is a junior member in the British House of Commons who occupies the back benches of Parliament, sitting behind party leaders and top government officials.
This term is most commonly used to describe legislators in parliamentary systems from England to New Zealand. There is some dispute about the first use of backbencher, though it generally attributed to English parliamentarians in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. Merriam-Webster places the term’s first use in 1799, while the Oxford English Dictionary places the evolution of backbench into backbencher in 1910. The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) places its origins in Canadian politics in 1897.
Backbencher is used not only to confer spatial locations in parliamentary locations but places in party hierarchies. The backbenches of Parliament are held by rank-and-file members who are low in the political pecking order. First-term legislators, independents, and party rebels are often found in the ranks of backbenchers. These figures are relegated to the back rows while party leaders and ministers occupy the front benches.
The DCHP places the first uses of backbenchers in American politics to the 1920s. Google’s Ngram Viewer confirms this chronology with a steady ascent in usage from 1936 to 1970. This trend may have occurred due to the closeness of relations between England and the United States.
U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) was a frequent user of the term during his tenure in Congress. His backbench days in the House including an effort to investigate the finances of Speaker of the House Jim Wright (D). In 1988, he told The New York Times:
If Jim Wright were a backbench member, I probably wouldn’t have done anything. But he’s the Speaker, and everything he could have done all his life as a backbencher becomes self-destructive when he becomes third in line to be President of the United States.
Backbencher doesn’t work as well in American politics due to differences in legislative seating rules. The House of Representatives held a desk lottery each session from 1845 to 1913. This lottery was necessary because floor desks acted as legislator offices before the construction of dedicated office space. The House lottery system shifted from desks to offices and the floor desks were replaced by benches open to any member. The Senate’s standing rules require the assignment of seats after allocation following the most recent election.
The Australian Financial Review (February 25, 2020): “The bitter debate over climate change has led backbenchers from the right and left of the Coalition to express interest in exploring nuclear power.”
The Guardian (January 9, 2019): “At the heart of it all is a group of Labour backbenchers – and a growing number of Conservatives – who have been campaigning for a second referendum for over a year, and who are described by one MP involved as ‘an executive in exile’.”
The Globe and Mail (February 11, 2013): “Since 1947, only 26 percent of backbenchers who sat on the government side for seven years without ever being given a greater role were subsequently promoted.”
BBC: “Backbenchers are also sometimes known as private members and thus a backbencher can introduce an original idea for legislation in the form of a Private Member’s Bill. Backbenchers have more freedom to speak as they are not as constrained by loyalty to the government. This can also pose problems for the party whips who try to impose party discipline.”
The term has also come to refer to the rank-and-file members of the U.S. Congress who are not part of their party’s leadership.