When it comes to getting the smartest output from a group, diversity trumps ability. Photo: Getty
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Having too many clever men around Ed Miliband is making the Labour Party stupider

The Labour leader is surrounded by brainboxes, but they’re all clever in the same way – their lack of diversity makes the whole group stupider.

The Guardian recently reported on just how narrow a church the Labour Party has become. Most of its candidates for key seats are Westminster insiders, the alumni of think tanks, political consultancies, and MP’s offices. A party that once drew its political talent from across society is now dominated by Ollies.

Commentary on this finding has focused, understandably, on the widening gap between our governing class and the people they rule. But there’s another reason to regret it: it’s making the Labour Party stupider.

This is somewhat counter-intuitive. Ollie and his peers may be the spawn of a small social gene pool, but few would accuse them of being dim. Quite the opposite: a typical career path might include a degree from Cambridge, perhaps taking in a year at Harvard, then a job at a think tank, writing fiendishly complex papers on welfare reform and advising the government of Latvia on transport policy. These are brainboxes, not dunces.

But to assume that a lot of clever people adds up to a clever group is to neglect a phenomenon well established by social scientists: the more similar the members of a group think, the lower the group’s collective intelligence.

This is known as the principle of “cognitive diversity”, and it is a key and sometimes neglected precondition of “the wisdom of crowds”. Collective wisdom isn’t a mere property of numbers; it arises out of the fizz and clash of different mindsets. A group of averagely intelligent people who think differently from each other will be cleverer than a group of highly intelligent people who think the same. Diversity trumps ability.

Whether it’s in political parties, juries, or boardrooms, groups of humans tend to make better decisions, and to be better at solving problems, when composed of individuals who see the world differently from each other. An engineer will approach the same problem very differently from a businesswoman or an artist. All of them may come up with good but limited or partial answers. But when their different and conflicting perspectives are brought together, the right solution is more likely to be discovered.

In his book The Difference, Scott Page, from the University of Michigan, explains that different people deploy different “cognitive toolboxes”: skills, rules of thumb, mental models. The greater the variety of toolboxes, the more tools are brought to bear on the problem at hand, and the more likely it is that a good answer will be found.

The political scientist Hélène Landemore, of Yale University, argues brilliantly in her book Democratic Reason that a democracy will usually reason its way towards good decisions, not despite, but because of the fact that its citizens have very different levels of education and information. In her view, democracy is not just fairer than other systems of governance, but smarter, because it harnesses the power of cognitive diversity to scale.

Assemble a bunch of brainy people who all think the same and you are as likely to generate groupthink as insight. The first major collective decision of the famously clever minds surrounding President Kennedy resulted in a botched invasion of Cuba. The journalist David Halberstam said of the group which led America deeper into Vietnam: “They were brilliant, and they were fools.”

Cognitive diversity shouldn’t be confused with cultural diversity, which is related but not the same. Looked at on the basis of gender and ethnicity, Labour has recruited an impressive mix of candidates. But if they all think the same way they won’t help the party make better decisions. (Of course, cultural diversity is important for other reasons.)

Conversely, the people gathered at Bletchley Park during World War II did not exactly constitute a rainbow of gender and ethnic identities. But they did think differently: they included mathematicians, linguists and classical scholars. Between them, they cracked a pretty tough problem.

The benefits of cognitive diversity apply with special force to the smaller group surrounding a political leader. In his memoir, A Journey, Tony Blair describes what it was like to have Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson at his side. Campbell was brassy, aggressive and direct, while Mandelson was calculating and subtle.

They were difficult to manage, because they rarely agreed and often fought, and a leader in search of a more harmonious team might have dropped one or the other. But that would have been foolish, for “in tandem they were as formidable a political force as can be imagined”. In a deliciously vivid metaphor, Blair imagines them breaking into a fortress:

Peter would slip into the castle through a secret passageway and, by nimble footwork and sharp and incisive thrusts of the rapier, cleave his way through to the throne room. Meanwhile, Alastair would be a very large oak battering ram destroying the castle gates, and neither boiling pitch nor reinforced doors would keep him out.

Blair’s inner circle, which also included characters like Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Anji Hunter and Robin Cook, was highly fractious. But there is no doubt that it was cognitively diverse, and his leadership the stronger for it.

Today, neither of the main party leaders cultivate cognitive diversity in their teams. Cameron generally prefers the company of people who think and talk like him, while Ed Miliband, a clever and reasonable man, and a political insider to his core, surrounds himself with clever and reasonable political insiders. Both leaders are blessed with teams that like each other and eschew infighting. But a happy team isn’t necessarily a winning team.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Ollie. It’s just that his talents need to be combined with those of people whose idea of hell is a think tank seminar. He and Malcolm Tucker make each other smarter.

Ian Leslie is the author of Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (Quercus, £10.99)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.