As an example, in the UK the parliament gathers to debate legislation even if the ruling party has 50%+1 votes, which is sufficient to pass any legislation they please. In this scenario, what makes them even bother dealing with the opposition rather than silently passing any laws they want?

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    The public, maybe?
    – Annatar
    May 24, 2018 at 13:08
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    I don't know about the UK, but in Germany members of parliament generally don't have to vote with their party. In some cases (depending on the legislation voted on) they are expected to and there might be consequences if they don't, but nobody can force them. Also, in most democratic systems majority can change and you want to treat the opposition as you want to be treated when you are the opposition.
    – Roland
    May 24, 2018 at 13:27
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    Perhaps this is more appropriate under history section. The UK parliament process amendment go through a century : to curb the king and all majority seat from passing tons of law at will without debate. Nevertheless, country that inherit the system can still abuse the system by making parliament members law rubber stamp.
    – mootmoot
    May 24, 2018 at 15:04
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    FWIW, in the UK the government routinely loses a few votes per Parliament even with a majority. Party discipline is not absolute. So you might ask, "why do the governing party's back-benchers want a debate?" May 24, 2018 at 16:58
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    It looks like this question uses "parliamentary systems" for what's commonly known as the " Westminster" first-past-the-post district system. In particular, the notion of a "ruling party" is not at all common.
    – MSalters
    May 25, 2018 at 7:50

7 Answers 7


Without contradicting the already existing answers(specially about making each party position and reasons known to the public), I would point that:

  • Not all parliaments are bipartisan. Different parties can align differently for different laws. Even parties within a coalition government can vote separately on some issues1.

  • As dsollen comments, in some political systems2 some laws (for example, to change a Constitution) require more votes than a simply majority; the majority party may have enough votes to support the government but not enough to change some of the laws.

  • MPs have individual votes. Generally, there is no law forcing them to vote along party lines (if it were they could just be replaced by giving the party leaders the right to cast the votes). Due to different reasons (conscience3/representing a district overwhelmingly against the law/others) some MPs may chose to abstain or even to vote against party lines. Of course, if done in critical laws or too often that can lead to that MP being given less support for reelection or even to expulsion.

  • Law proposals are not "all-or-nothing", and they can be amended, and sometimes opposition initiatives are taken into account. While it would be very unusual for the government to do a U-turn and retire a proposal, it can accept small changes proposed by other parties - either because they are found to be good ideas, or because by doing so they expect some political advantages, for example:

    • Opposition to the approved law is weaker

    • Minor opposition means that the losing side has less means to continue opposing the law through other means (popular protests, boycotts, disobedience campaigns, etc.)

    • It is reasonable to expect that, if the ruling party loses control of the government to a party that voted for the (amended) law, that party will refrain from making major changes to the law.

    • It may ease negotiations for passing other laws.

1 Although I would expect that a government would take into account the opinion of their supporting parties, that is not always the case. A government could try to pass a law opposed by a supporting party if it is believed that it will not alienate that party enough to let the government fall.

2 I think that is not the case of the UK, though.

3 The example that is more typical (AFAIK) could be abortion or euthanasia laws, which are issues with a strong personal component that often cross socioeconomic affinities that define membership to parties.

  • 4
    And if everything else falls, it gives an opportunity for doing some exercise
    – SJuan76
    May 24, 2018 at 15:27
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    @Jesse US-style primaries are the exception, not the norm. Most political parties are simply organizations. Membership in an organization is a privilege, not a right. If a member consistently works against the interests of the organization, the organization may choose to expel them. May 24, 2018 at 21:03
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    @JouniSirén The MPs don't lose their job if being expelled by a party, though. They an choose to stay in parliament without a party or join another one.
    – NotTelling
    May 25, 2018 at 8:07
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    @Jesse the MPs are elected as persons in their own right; party affiliation is voluntary. It's (comparatively) easy to stand on your own. There have been cases of MPs quitting and successfully running against their own party. Once they're in Parliament they stay there and can go independent or "cross the floor" to the other party. Theoretically they can't even resign, so a hack in the system is employed: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… . Note also that parties are more local in the UK than they are in the US too; NI has an entirely different set.
    – pjc50
    May 25, 2018 at 10:14
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    I'd also add that sometimes there is a difference between 'ruling party' and 'ability to force a law through'. For example some rulings in the US require a 2/3 majority to pass, meaning that a party having a majority in the congress may still not have enough power to ensure a vote goes their way, even if everyone in the party votes on party lines. Likewise there are checks and balances, like the presidents ability to veto in the US, which may also prevent forcing a law through.
    – dsollen
    May 25, 2018 at 14:36

Because the rules of parliamentary procedure often guarantee that all factions in the parliament must have the opportunity to comment on a law before it is being voted on. For the UK House of Commons in particular, the rules for debates are codified in the Standing Orders of the House of Commons order 26 - 37.

The opposition will usually use that opportunity to criticize the proposed law. The government will use it to refute and downplay their criticism.

These debates have practically no influence on the actual vote. Usually all the factions will have had an internal meeting before the session where they decided how to vote on the matter. So every member of the parliament will already have decided how to vote before even entering the parliament.

You might wonder what's the point of having these debates in the first place if they don't contribute to the political decision making process. It is usually done to make the reasons behind a law transparent to the constituents. The protocols of parliamentary debates are usually public. When it's time for election, the voters can look up what the incumbent representatives said during parliament debates and judge for themselves how much they align with their own opinions.

  • 4
    "When it's time for election, the voters can look up" -- or more realistically, over the course of the parliament voters form an impression of what the incumbent MP and their party in general have been up to. The number of voters who actually ever look at Hansard themselves (even via TheyWorkForYou or whatever) is probably negligible, but they do hear about it or see it on TV. May 24, 2018 at 16:54
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    I am inclined to think that transparency is not quite the reason. Instead, it is vestigial. Parliament votes on an almost pure party line now, but this was not always so. Deeper in history, when parliamentary procedure was developed, party loyalty was less absolute and more like the U.S. Senate with more give and take by marginal members of the majority.
    – ohwilleke
    May 24, 2018 at 18:57
  • @ohwilleke its unusual to lose a debate unless the majority is tiny. If the whips don't think they can get enough to get a majority the government may withdraw the motion. And all parties have those that rebel if you have a big majority and keep your local party on side you can do this with impunity as Jeremy Corbin did. May 24, 2018 at 21:18

Legislation is sometimes passed with little or no debate either in an emergency or for uncontroversial technical corrections to the law. There are reasons for the ruling party to want a full debate in parliament:

  • Individual members (of all parties) want to have the opportunity to speak in parliament. Making a good performance in parliament can boost their careers. The MPs have a vested interest in keeping parliament relevant.
  • Often, some members have particular interest in the bill (e.g if it especially affects their electorate) and they will want to speak about it to either claim credit if it is good or defray responsibility if it is painful.
  • The members are not obliged to vote along party lines. The party will have sanctions against them if they cross the floor but it must also provide them with positive incentives. If enough parliamentary party members are dissatisfied with the executive, they can install a new executive.
  • The parliamentary debate is a well-reported public forum where the ruling party can sell the virtues of their policy to the electorate and score rhetorical points against the opposition.
  • The electorate is generally suspicious of decisions made without public debate. A party that gags debate without good reason will likely be seen as out-of-touch, arrogant or dictatorial.
  • Since the ruling party has the numbers, they don't risk loosing the vote.
  • It is not really in the interest of any politician to breach conventions by completely excluding the opposition party because they know they may well be in opposition after the next election.
  • Statements made during the parliamentary debate can affect how the courts will interpret the new law.

Without debate the public may be susceptible to opposition messaging on the issue. With debate politicians can go on public record with the reasons why they support such legislation, and perhaps innoculate their constituents to such messaging. Even if it is possible to pass laws in secret (or as you say, without debate), it probably isn't a good idea because your political opponents can point to how secretive you are being even if everyone in the electorate would normally agree with the law being passed.

In cases where your opposition doesn't wish to subvert your message, a politician still could actually believe in the legislation they are wishing to adopt and wish to educate the public on its consequences. Having a parliamentary debate is at least an efficient way of doing so.

Plus it sometimes makes for great TV.

  • One can pass laws without floor voting accompanied by debate in a manner that is still transparent (or indeed more so - floor debate is often not very illuminative substantively). This is essentially how the regulatory process for regulations promulgated pursuant to legislation works.
    – ohwilleke
    May 24, 2018 at 18:58
  • @ohwilleke Sure, but for a lot of people the sound bites captured during the debate are all they see when they're covered on the evening news. When campaign season rolls around those sound bites will make up a good portion of audio in advertisements in between deep-voiced narrator tracks. I don't think people generally pay attention to government oversight reports, but they will sometimes pay attention to politicians debating government oversight, especially if done with style by a charismatic orator.
    – user5155
    May 24, 2018 at 19:15

In the German parliament, the development has been very obvious, maybe because it is a relatively young democracy, yet old enough to have completed the circle.

Discussions in parliament are now a form of ritual. Everyone already knows what everyone else is going to say, and how everyone else is going to vote in the end, no matter what is being said. Anyway, everyone goes through the motions.

Note that this happened during the last government periods no matter who the ruling party was and no matter how tight or comfortable the majorities were.

The reason is twofold. Firstly, purpose and history. The parliament is intended as a place where through debate majorities are formed. A parliament what would abandon the debate would question its own purpose and existence. Basically, if your job is some useless nonsense that nobody needs, but you have a family to feed, you don't go and point out to your boss just how redundant you are.

Secondly, those speeches are show for the press. Their purpose is to present to the public where the party stands on issues, so that in the next election, maybe just maybe they will remember. It is part of public relations or maintaining your image and profile as a party. Your voters (existing as well as prospective) simply expect you to speak out against certain things, even if you can't swing the vote.

  • 1
    Call me naive, but I find this answer highly cynical. Do you have any evidence to back this up? Aren't there any German MPs who debate for genuine reasons? May 26, 2018 at 12:20
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    Party membership indicates a general political direction. But there are plenty of laws where the "general political direction" doesn't determine how an MP would want to vote for a particular law, so it needs to be debated, and you could have a law that is supported by 60% of the majority party and 50% of the minority party and goes through.
    – gnasher729
    May 26, 2018 at 13:34
  • An example would be if it is universally agreed that achieving X is good, but there is disagreement what's the best way to achieve X, and that disagreement is not because of party membership.
    – gnasher729
    May 26, 2018 at 13:35
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    @gnasher729 that is how it should be, but it isn't. If you check the records (abgeordnetenwatch.de/bundestag/abstimmungen) you will notice that the parties typically vote uniform. Check the data, the graphs are easy to understand even if you don't speak one word of German.
    – Tom
    May 26, 2018 at 16:02
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    There are also sites like abgeordnetenwatch.de and netzpolitik.org which act as watchdogs on the parliament and have uncovered quite a few of these behaviours and published the evidence. Read their sites if you are interested in more details.
    – Tom
    May 26, 2018 at 16:03

I cannot speak for the UK system, but here in Canada (which should be roughly the same parliamentary system), MP's can vote as they wish on most issues, unless the ruling government is a minority government, in which case any MP voting against the party will likely be expelled. In addition, MP's can elect to abstain from voting, so even if the majority government has 51% of the seats, it does not mean it has 51% of the votes on every bill.

Party is much less important versus the individual MP elected in a parliamentary system. The representative was elected by his constituents, in his region, and his job is to represent them. One may very well vote against party lines on some issues if they feel the party line goes against the interests of his constituents.

Also, all parliament sessions are televised on CPAC here. Not that a lot of people watch it, but still, the issues need to be discussed before a vote.


When the government manages to get support from some opposition parties on a proposed law, the chances are high, that after a change in government that law will not be immediately revoked and overturned.

In a highly bi-partisan parliament, after a change of government, many of the former-government-only law might quickly be replaced by the new government.

This might even be more so, e.g. in the US, when laws were passed entirely without parliamentry support, i.e. the executive orders of the US president.

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