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?

I've just been awarded funding by the John Fell Fund  for a project called 'Legislative Influence without a Vote: Partisanship and the Backbench’.

This research will build on a previous project, Political Parties, Partisanship and the Constitution, which was funded by Jesus College, the British Academy, and the Programme for the Foundations of Law & Constitutional Government. Through that project, Dr Leah Trueblood (Worcester College), Dr Ewan Smith (Christ Church) and I explored the role of political parties in a constitutional system from a normative and legal perspective. In the next stage of this research, I will be reseraching how backbench legislators in New Zealand navigate moral complexity in their job: how they balance the conflicting demands of conscience, party unity, and responsiveness to their voters. The project follows an ethnographic turn in political theory, where empirical work informs and grounds our reflection on challenging ethical questions. 

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.