Rick Muir responds to the critique put forward by Jeremy Gilbert, contending that relational thinkers have begun to address the need for democratic reform in our economy.

Jeremy Gilbert is right to say that when advocates of relational politics call for 'relational' as opposed to 'transactional' approaches to politics and public administration, we are in fact arguing for certain types of relationships rather than others. We want much more of our lives to be structured by egalitarian and democratic relationships rather than transactional or hierarchical ones.

Gilbert's second point is more contentious: that relational thinkers, as represented in IPPR's recent work, have not as yet appreciated – or, if they have, have not explicitly articulated – the radical implications of their project. He argues that this failure to confront the harder questions of power means that the agenda will not in the end lead to a genuine shift in progressive politics.

There is a simple reason for the lack of economic discussion in the publications Gilbert describes. They focused mainly on the role of the state, and particularly on the reform of public services, arguing for a shift away from new public management approaches and towards more relational forms of service design and institution building.

Gilbert is right that relational politics has much wider implications, notably in the economic arena. Indeed, there is a widespread popular understanding that unaccountable power in our economy did more to drive us into the crisis of the last six years than the centralised state, with all its failings, did.

Read also: 'Thinking relationally: Reflections on the new democratic politics', the original critique of the relational state in policy thinking, by Jeremy Gilbert.

However, Gilbert underplays the range of demands for democratic reform in our economy that have erupted in recent years, many of which have been articulated by those same advocates of a more relational state.[1] The campaign for a living wage, calls for worker representation on company boards, the pursuit of less exploitative modes of short-term lending and the pursuit of regional banking are all causes that have merged into British political debate in a way that they certainly didn't during the New Labour years.

Thinkers such as Roberto Unger and Elizabeth Anderson have started to argue that the locus of egalitarian thinking must shift from the welfare state to the workplace, which Anderson rightly describes as a place in which basic democratic rights, such as freedom of speech, are routinely suppressed.[2] But we have only just started to think hard about how we can democratise working life in a context in which the mass trade unions of the industrial society have been drastically weakened, and in which there is a preponderance of small and medium-sized enterprises and a growth in self-employment.

These debates have tended to remain separate, rather than forming part of a single framework, but the impulse towards spreading more democratic and egalitarian relationships is shared by all. What Gilbert is right about is that we are at the start of this journey rather than the end.

Rick Muir is associate director at IPPR and author, with Imogen Parker, of Many to many: How the relational state will transform public services(IPPR, 2014).


1. See Glasman M et al (2011) The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox, Oxford London Seminars/Soundings. ^back

2. See Unger RM and Wood S (2014) 'Juncture interview: Roberto Unger on the means and ends of the political left', Juncture online, 22 January 2014; and Anderson E (2012) 'Juncture: A history of egalitarianism with Elizabeth Anderson' (audio), presentation at IPPR, London, 13 June 2013. ^back