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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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.