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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.

Ed Miliband takes questions during the Labour Party conference. Photo: Getty
When it comes to getting the smartest output from a group, diversity trumps ability. Photo: Getty

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)