The anatomy of a conspiracy theory, or why Keir Starmer was right

By Peter Bradley

It’s one thing to criticise a government, an organisation, a group on the evidence of their misdeeds. We ought to do so. It’s quite another to indict without evidence. No reputable justice system could convict on that basis.  But in the twilight zone of conspiracy theory, as in primitive religion, belief trumps evidence. Here the facts, or lack of them, can always be made to fit the prejudice. This is a realm we should never enter.

Last week, we were presented with an object lesson in conspiracy’s enduring but poisonous appeal. Surely, we can learn from it?

Last Thursday, The Independent published an interview with Maxine Peake in which she asserted that ‘the tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learnt from seminars with Israeli secret services’. The inference, which many of her supporters seemed keen to share, was that the Israelis were somehow responsible for – or, at least, complicit in – George Floyd’s death.

Rebecca Long-Bailey appeared to be one of them, for she tweeted admiringly, and without qualification, that Maxine Peake is an absolute diamond’ and was promptly sacked as Shadow Education Secretary. Keir Starmer told reporters, ‘I didn’t do that because she is antisemitic, I did it because she shared the article which has got, in my view, antisemitic conspiracy theories in it’.

Peake, it seems, had relied on a 2016 report on Amnesty International’s website that US police departments were receiving training from ‘chronic human rights violator – Israel’. The Independent provided a link to the article but it seems that neither the newspaper nor Maxine Peake had read it because, as Amnesty later pointed out, ‘allegations that US police were taught tactics of “neck kneeling” by Israeli secret services is not something we’ve ever reported’. The paper subsequently concluded, albeit unapologetically, that ‘the allegation…is unfounded’ and removed the link.

Peake herself conceded in a tweet, ‘I was inaccurate in my assumption’ and, in adding that ‘I find racism & antisemitism abhorrent…’ appeared to accept that her original statement had given succour to conspiracy theorists.

But these corrections were powerless to prevent some on both left and right from continuing to promote what they thought the unexpurgated article entitled them to believe. Some insisted that, despite the retractions, its assumptions were true; others that they might as well be.  For some, the clarifications, far from puncturing the conspiracy, inflated it further. Amnesty, first lauded as the authority for Maxine Peake’s assertion, was now anathematised for confirming that it was not. One outraged critic tweeted ‘@amnesty are just another spineless org who capitulate to nazi [sic] Zionist tactics’. 

As conspiracy theories so often do, the first soon spawned a second, that Keir Starmer had exploited the controversy to rid himself of a long-standing Corbyn supporter.  Just as quickly, the two conspiracies merged. One signatory to a petition to reinstate Rebecca Long-Bailey, proclaimed, ‘I despair of trying to support a party whose policies are dictated by a foreign power’.

But, for those who genuinely want to believe that the Israelis were implicated in George Floyd’s death, who really think that driving a wedge between black and Jewish people is for the greater good, who honestly want others to accept that they haven’t fallen for or are themselves broadcasting an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, here are seven statements they will have to justify. 

  1. US police never mistreated black Americans before they received training by Israelis
  2. Israel and the US are the only two countries which exchange policing techniques
  3. Israel invented neck-kneeling and was solely responsible for introducing it to US law-enforcement agencies
  4. This technique is more dangerous than any other form of restraint, including, for example, the use of chokeholds or tasers
  5. Israeli trainers advise US police that this should in all circumstances be the preferred method of restraint
  6. Israeli trainers recommend that the technique be misapplied – especially to black people
  7. Israeli trainers exert such influence that American police officers are unable to exercise their own judgment.

For those tempted by conspiracy theories, the question is not how many of those statements you believe, or want to, but how many you can substantiate. For few if any such theories can withstand honest, reasoned enquiry.

Starmer’s critics contend that this episode proves that his commitment to party unity is hollow. But a unity which demands accommodation with the delusions of conspiracy theorists and common cause with apologists for anti-Semitism, is not a principled unity. There are values – Labour’s true values – which cannot be compromised for unity’s sake. That may not have been clear over the last few years. It is now.

There was another passage in Maxine Peake’s interview which should have attracted more attention than it did. She said, ‘I think people should be allowed to make mistakes, as long as people make those mistakes with a view to going, “Well how do I rectify this?” But make that the culture. That it’s alright to get it wrong every now and again.’

That’s absolutely diamond advice.

Peter Bradley was Labour MP for The Wrekin from 1997 to 2005. He is co-founder of Speakers’ Corner Trust, a charity which promotes free expression, public debate and active citizenship. He tweets at @petercsbradley.

1 Comment

  1. Graeme Kemp on June 29, 2020 at 9:55 am

    Quite.

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