The Deliberative Costs of Strict Party Discipline

How does the strict enforcement of party discipline affect deliberations in a legislature? Udit Bhatia, University of Oxford, considers this in a new blog based on his article for the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy.

How do parties affect deliberation in the legislature? In their pioneering work on the subject, The Meaning of Partisanship, Jonathan White and Lea Ypi have argued that parties play a pivotal role in organising deliberation, making lines of disagreement visible, and mobilising wider discussion within society. Does the significance of partisanship for deliberation mean that we should wholeheartedly endorse mechanisms of strict discipline, such as party whips? In my new article, Cracking the Whip: The Deliberative Costs of Strict Party Discipline, I argue that the enforcement of strict discipline by party leaders can negatively affect legislative deliberation.

The article begins by distinguishing party discipline from party unity. Party unity refers to a situation where legislators belonging to a given party take the same stance on some legislative proposal. Party discipline, crucially, is only one important route to the achievement of party unity. Such unity can also be derived from cohesion, which depends on factors like loyalty, socialisation into the party’s norms or consensus among partisans. I argue that there are good normative reasons to discourage party leaders’ excessive reliance on mechanisms of strict discipline.

In the first instance, strict party discipline can affect legislative dissent in at least three ways. First, it can restrict the formation of opinions contrary to one’s party line. After all, if the only opinion a member of parliament (MP) is required to endorse is the one offered by the party’s leadership, then there is little incentive to engage in the costly task of scrutinising other ideas. Further, strict discipline can also restrict the expression of contrary opinions through its chilling effect on dissenting MPs. If an MP criticised their party’s stance, they would ordinarily be expected to demonstrate consistency by also voting against it. But party leaders could make it costly for them to cross-vote by penalising dissenters. Having to put up a façade of consistency means that legislators are less likely to express opinions contrary to those they must eventually vote for. Finally, strict discipline can also hinder the uptake of dissenting opinions. Here, I draw on Meg Russell and Daniel Gover’s recent work, Legislation at Westminster, which shows the subtle ways in which backbench MPs can exercise influence over the law-making process even when they ultimately vote with their party. Russell and Gover powerfully demonstrate how party leaders’ concern with their backbenchers’ anticipated reaction leads them to listen more carefully to the backbench during the legislative process. I argue that strict discipline enables party leaders to override the concerns that their backbench MPs might hold.

What bearing does this have on deliberation in parliament? To understand this, we first need a clearer picture of what we ought to expect from legislative discussion. I argue that we could draw on either of two accounts.  First, we might view it as an epistemic process, or a method of problem-solving, where there are some ‘right’ answers that political discussion tries to track. Alternatively, we might see the role of legislative deliberation as one of advancing public justification for laws, by making clear to the external public the dimensions of disagreement between competing actors. Here, the role of legislative discussion is not to arrive at the ‘right’ answer, but simply provide the widest possible map of opinions that exist on a given subject. I argue that strict party discipline harms deliberation in both senses.

From an epistemic perspective, strict party discipline harms legislative deliberation in at least two ways. It deprives us of one of the most significant strengths of a legislative assembly—its numerical size. Compared to other institutions like the judiciary, legislative bodies are typically large in number, aimed at ensuring that information dispersed across a society is adequately pooled in when we make laws. Strict party discipline reduces the effective size of the law-making process to a relatively small, more homogenous group of decision-makers. Further, it deprives us of the epistemically productive benefits of bicameralism. The point of having bicameral legislatures is to have every decision affirmed by two distinctive sets of decision-makers. Yet, when the same party commands both houses, its leaders can whip votes, thereby undermining the ability of a bicameral parliament to offer a second opinion.

At the same time, I argue that strict party discipline also harms a legislature’s capacity to advance public justification. Being able to see how our own position can be defended from within our partisan adversary’s camp is valuable from the perspective of public justification. It can aid deliberation across the aisle by blunting the negative edges of polarisation. As such, public dissensus within a party can help the cause of deliberation. But strict party deliberation precludes this and prevents voters from viewing the full map of opinions that exist within any party on a given issue.

Indeed, part of our assessment of party discipline turns on our evaluation of deliberation elsewhere. As proponents of the systemic approach to deliberative democracy argue, we should not expect that every discursive site would exhibit the same qualities and adhere to a singular standard of deliberation. Rather, weaknesses in one forum might be mitigated by others. Following this approach, we might suggest that intra-party deliberation could mitigate some of the deliberative costs of strict party discipline explored in the article. I explore ways in which parties could reform their internal discursive procedures in ways that best enable them to compensate for the costs of strict discipline in parliament. However, I suggest that the absence of such procedures at present serve to emphasise why strict party discipline is particularly worrying from a deliberative perspective.


Udit Bhatia is a Lecturer in Political Theory at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. He is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford, and his research interests lie at the intersections of democratic theory, political representation and social epistemology. From October 2018, he will be a Junior Research Fellow in Politics at Jesus College, Oxford. His website is:  or follow him on Twitter: @bhatia_ud

This article is based on Udit Bhatia’s new article Cracking the Whip: The Deliberative Costs of Strict Party Discipline, published in the Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy on 6 June 2018.


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