Regulation and dissent in modern political parties

Dr Udit Bhatia is a Junior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford and an academic affiliate at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights. His research engages with epistocracy, the notion that competent people ought to enjoy exclusive or disproportionate political power. He examines the role this has played in constitutional moments in the United States, Britain and India. He is also currently working on constitutional and moral questions relevant to the functioning of political parties in democratic states. 

How did you come to be at Jesus College?

I did my Bachelors in Philosophy at Delhi University and then my Masters in Legal and Political Theory at UCL in London. I then did an MPhil in Politics and Education at Cambridge, followed by a DPhil at Oxford. The PhD was an intellectually stimulating process, and it helped me find friends and colleagues with whom I could share my work and learn. During my PhD I also got a part-time lectureship at Lady Margaret Hall and then this position opened up at Jesus. I had an offer from an institute in Germany at the time, so I was basically packing my bags while I was interviewing at Jesus College.

Oxford is an excellent place to do political theory. I think political theory here is really central to the department’s offering. It is taken very seriously, and political theorists at Oxford are not just famous within Oxford circles, they're well-known in the wider academic community for the quality of their work.

When I started the fellowship at Jesus College, I could hit the ground running as I was already here for my doctorate. From my time as a student, I had a decent idea about what I would like to do and how I would go about it if I were offered this job. I had a roadmap and it was easier to work here rather than start somewhere else all over again.

Briefly explain your current research

I’m currently thinking about how parties should be regulated and how they should regulate their own relationships with Members of Parliament. To what extent should parties operate as legislative entities, and ask their MPs to vote in favour of their whip? What should a party be able to demand if a member doesn’t obey the whip? Those are the kinds of questions I’m looking at. The first paper looks at party whips being taken to an extreme, and how this can actually harm deliberation in Parliament in many ways.

The current research I’m doing is looking at a more complex question: we might say one thing about MPs voting against their party, but to what extent should MPs have the right to freely criticise members or leaders of their party? One argument we often get is, if you go into a workplace and criticise the boss, you’re going to get thrown out. Just like companies, political parties also trade on the marketplace. On this view, parties compete for voters just like corporations are on the market for customers. I’m looking at the extent to which this analogy holds up and whether we can argue that party members should have the right to voice dissent.

Why did you choose this topic?

My PhD actually looked at the idea of experts and democracy. Why shouldn't we just restrict the right to vote to people that are competent? It looked at arguments that have been historically given to try and restrict legislative power to those who are most competent. By looking at that I realised that while we could look at the relationship between voters, constitutions and parliaments, but the missing factor is the political party. This question is mentioned briefly in my PhD but I realised that it needed a complete inquiry of its own. So after my PhD, I started to look at how the relationship between voters, parliament and constitutions might be complicated by the presence of the party.

What are the key findings of your research so far?

Political philosophy research is always ongoing, unlike political scientists we’re unable to tell you  what the data says. We’re constantly revising the arguments until they are published. What I'm looking at right now is, if we say that parties are like companies there is a lot of interesting work in both labour law and political philosophy that argues that workers should in fact have the right to speak freely, even if this involves criticising their own employers. I'm trying to take that analogy seriously, the analogy that parties are like companies. Instead of drawing the conclusion that party members should not be able to voice dissent, I’m trying to reverse it and argue that if they are like companies then that means MPs should be able to voice dissent against party leaders.

What impacts are you expecting to emerge from your research?

There is one main thing that I've been planning in conjunction with my colleague Ewan Smith from Jesus College and Leah Trueblood, who is a Career Development Fellow in Public Law at Worcester College. We’ve been running a project together, to come up with a policy document or a set of recommendations. In February I was part of the team that organised the ‘Remaking the UK Constitution’ conference at the Bonavero Institute, which was attended by some party members including Joanna Cherry from the SNP. We are already in touch with Members of Parliament and the idea is to send this report to them.

I’m quite mindful that I’m working on this topic at a time when parties are facing a bit of a crisis about how to handle their internal affairs. I’m hoping that the recommendations we come up with will be a way of helping them think through what is a serious ethical issue, though it gets simplified with all the rhetoric going on right now. I think there are real ethical issues about what it means to be a party member and what your obligations to your political party are, and unfortunately right now, everything is being deferred to Brexit and an instrumentalist view of ‘what do we want to get?’. Party lines are being blurred and re-drawn by different sides on the Brexit debate. Constitutional and ethical issues concerning the role of parties and the rights and obligations of their members are getting lost, and we are hoping to give parties something to think about in the wider scheme of things.

I was interested to see that Caroline Lucas has been repeatedly arguing that we now need a written constitution, which is also something that a colleague of mine at Jesus, Professor Stuart White, has been arguing for. I very much see my research as being aligned with that, moving beyond Brexit and looking to what the constitutional future for Britain is; political parties must figure in that story.

What are the upcoming milestones in your work?

There was a large flagship event hosted at the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights in Oxford, which is part of the Faculty of Law. We had many stakeholders come for the conference, this included journalists, domestic activists, prominent international academics and politicians. That conference started by looking at the case for a written constitution in the UK and why that might not be desirable for people trying to tweak the current constitutional system, or lack thereof. Do we need a written constitution? How have previous attempts gone? What happens if we decide we need one?

We hosted two conferences, one in March and another in June. The March conference hosted early career researchers, postdoc or PhD students, working on political parties around the world. We heard from people working in Singapore, Australia, America and Germany and they were talking to us about the party systems in their countries. Then in June we had a high level conference with senior academics working on parties and the ethics and laws of partisanship around the world.

We wanted to host a conference later in the year where we finally sit down with our political leaders to feed back some of the research that we’ve heard about and listen to their reaction. Then on the basis of that we could come up with a report. Now, unfortunately, isn’t the best time to get leaders of Westminster in a room as we had planned. We are going to watch and wait, and see when Brexit will finally allow party leaders to come and discuss these fairly sensitive issues. If it doesn’t soon, we are going to wait another academic year and if the end still doesn't seem near, then we will need to rethink how we go about the more public-facing side of this project.

What will you be focusing on in future research projects?

I’ve been working on a book project on epistocracy in legislative design. Epistocracy is a niche philosophical proposal which has come about in the last four to five years. It says that we should take power away from ordinary citizens because they are ignorant and that we should transfer power to those who are competent. I am looking at this idea of epistocracy, looking at how countries historically have tried to constitutionalise epistocracy, such as the US and India. It is quite easy to say “let’s pick those who are competent”, but once we actually start doing that we realise that there are all kinds of problems. How do you identify these competent people? Will this constitutional system be captured by one set of elites to oppress others? Moreover, it’s likely to be detrimental to groups that are already socio-economically disadvantaged, and have little political voice.

I’m looking at ways in which constitutions have historically tried to operationalise epistocracy but  also what kind of philosophical criticism we can offer against modern proposals in favour of it. That is the book project I’m working on at the moment. My manuscript was recently the subject of a workshop at the University of York, where several UK academics gathered to go through the draft chapter by chapter. It was an excellent experience to have such focused commentary on my work. I’m shortly sending the manuscript out for review and the workshop has helped strengthen it a great deal.

Welcome to our Meet the Fellows section, where we profile some of our Jesus College Fellows and highlight the fascinating research they are working on. For a full list of Jesus College Fellows and Lecturers, please see here.