Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Editorial: Taking a relational turn

In the editorial for edition 20.4 of Juncture, we chart the intellectual currents that have led thinkers and reformers on the left towards a new, relational account of how the state does public services.

In the preface to his magisterial work of social history, The Making of the English Working Class, the historian EP Thompson famously wrote that he was 'seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott [a self-styled religious prophetess] from the enormous condescension of posterity'.

Thompson's great endeavour was to recover these working people from the dustbin of history, to understand their ambitions, aspirations and agency, and to give them voice. They were not simply bearers of larger historical processes, positions in a structure, or subjects in a discourse, but human beings with their own hopes and fears, and moral worth. 'I do not see class as a "structure",' Thompson wrote, 'nor even as a "category", but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.'

Those words were penned 50 years ago. But Thompson's democratic insistence on the centrality of human agency and social relationships is strikingly resonant for contemporary political debates. As Mike Kenny, author of the introduction to the new Penguin Classic edition of The Making, notes:

'The picture of a diverse collection of people coming together to resist the encroachments of markets forces and overbearing state continues to afford considerable consolation, and perhaps even a flicker of hope, for citizens still struggling to come to terms with the manifestations of both of these forces.'

In this edition of Juncture, we seek to bring together some of these concerns as they are expressed in contemporary egalitarian thinking, along two major axes: the theory of equality and the theory of the state (and its close cousin, public service reform).

The revival of active and democratic accounts of equality is represented by its leading proponents in the Anglophone and Francophone worlds, Elizabeth Anderson and Pierre Rosanvallon. Each, in their different ways, has sought to advance the theory of equality beyond a singular, distributional definition. Like Thompson, Anderson grounds her relational egalitarianism in the lived struggles for recognition of disadvantaged and stigmatised groups, tracing the history of claims for social equality - of esteem, standing and respect - back to the English Levellers. Her central argument - that equality is not the distribution of a particular thing but a property of social relations - does not diminish the necessity of reducing vast disparities of income and wealth, but grounds egalitarianism in a richer, and more historically and pragmatically rooted set of arguments and ambitions. Likewise, Rosanvallon traces the lineage of egalitarian ideals back to their revolutionary origins, but seeks to reframe the argument for social equality in terms that make sense in an age of individuals not collectivities.

In contrast to egalitarian political theory - in which there have been very active and lively debates - the theory of the state has remained relatively undeveloped on the left in recent years. In part, this reflects the relative political weakness of liberal and participatory strands of British social democracy, which have tended historically to lose out to their Fabian, Croslandite and more recent New Labour rivals. There have been strong currents of socialist thought in Great Britain that have nurtured pluralist ambitions for participatory self-government in the economy and society, pre-eminent among them the guild socialism of GDH Cole. The British social liberal tradition had similar concerns. In French theory, more ambitious still were the Catholic social theorists clustered around Personalism, whose objective of creating a political theory and strategy that would challenge both free market liberalism and communist statism, and root politics in a conception of the common good, would bear remarkable fruit in the political success of Christian democracy. Yet in the mainstream of social democratic political traditions, state theory - giving the state both the empirical and normative attention it deserves - has remained remarkably undeveloped.

There are obvious reasons for addressing that lacuna today. For one, the new public management paradigm that has dominated public service reform for the last 30 years now appears to have run its course: relational approaches, complexity theory and other new intellectual movements are challenging its position. More substantively, the state is also the site of major contemporary political struggles - whether in the challenge to its powers of surveillance, the battles over cuts to services, resistance to centralised decision-making, or the growth of what we might call the 'Serco state', in which services are commissioned and paid for by results in such a way that only large corporates with working capital can win the government contracts. Each of these issues requires a political and democratic response.

In this edition, Rick Muir outlines the intellectual currents that have culminated in what he and others have termed the 'relational state'. This approach starts from the limitations of both marketised and bureaucratised forms of public administration, recognising in particular the limits of the thin liberalism of new public management and markets of choice. Compared with standard rational choice theory, the relational state offers a fuller, more realistically social and robust account of how people actually use public services and what they want from them. It values institutions and the relationships they embody and nurture, not in order to exempt them from reform but to recognise their centrality to human flourishing and their great capacity to garner political commitment to public services. (Imagine, as a thought experiment to test this point, that Bevan had created a social insurance or tax credit scheme for healthcare in 1948, rather than the NHS.)

Relational reform, Muir argues, also promises better outcomes for dealing with complex problems like long-term unemployment and antisocial behaviour, by giving people consistent, coordinated support, rather than passing them between caseworkers and service providers. It would also better house the voluntary and community sector and secure its role in service provision than the architecture of payment by results and corporate contracting. In a similar vein, Liz Kendall argues for a shift of power out from Whitehall departments and down to citizens and the users of services, putting users' wishes at the forefront in designing services and recognising the importance of their having the budgetary and other powers necessary to secure these ambitions.

There are other notable currents of relational thinking which could just as well be included in this overview, not least the democratic and distinctly English insights of Blue Labour theorists. Lawrence Goldman's essay on the legacy of RH Tawney in this volume is a reminder of equally influential and enduring historical antecedents to relational egalitarianism. We argue that there is enough common ground in these approaches to characterise them as a 'relational turn' in contemporary left thought. If that is so, the programmatic task that follows is to consider their implications, not just for public policy, but also for politics: to what, for EP Thompson, was the making of history.