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If you pick the right party at the right time it can be very easy getting a job in politics. For instance, in the aftermath of the landslide defeat of 1997, the Conservative Party was wide open to even the most minimally qualified applicants.

For the most part, this did the party a power of good. All of sorts of weird-and-wonderful folk, who might otherwise have been passed over in favour of more conventional sorts, got their start during this period – some in Central Office, others in right-leaning think tanks or campaign groups.

Quite a few of them are now MPs – or have played other important roles. In fact, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the Conservative Party was saved by a small army of eccentrics, fresh-thinkers and wild-cards.

Unfortunately, as Tory fortunes revived, the stuffed-suits and greasy-pole artists reasserted control – and a lot of what’s gone wrong can be blamed on them, not the unconventionals.

The Labour Party’s great misfortune has been to go from former party of government to government-in-waiting without an intervening period in the political wilderness. As a result they’ve had no trouble recruiting senior staffers of the reassuringly dull variety.

It’s a point amplified by Ian Leslie in an insightful piece for the New Statesman:

“…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.”

The reason why this a bad thing is that the sort of people who are both willing and able to follow such a trajectory are a same-y lot:

“…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… Diversity trumps ability.”

Crucially, cognitive diversity is not the same thing as cultural diversity:

“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.”

Cultural diversity has increased at the same time that cognitive diversity has decreased. This isn’t to say that the former is the cause of latter, but rather to note that the latter has happened despite the former – which takes some doing. Indeed, in a country that has welcomed new citizens from every corner of the Earth, it is a scandal that one can still end up with collection of individuals as utterly indistinguishable as Labour’s top team.

To reiterate, the problem isn’t that they’re not clever or even too clever, but that they’re all clever in the same way.

“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.”

Of course, some might say that there’s no shortage of tools in the Westminster village – but that’s another story.

33 comments for: Why do clever politicians make stupid decisions?

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