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8 February 2022

‘Tactical’ use of conspiracy theories is poisoning politics

The intimidation of Keir Starmer is a warning about what happens when politicians stoop to untruths.

By Brendan Cox

The intimidation of Keir Starmer last night (7 February) was as horrible as it was unsurprising. In recent years the online and physical intimidation of our politicians has become something we have had to get used to. Michael Gove, Anna Soubry, Jacob Rees-Mogg and now Keir Starmer and David Lammy have all needed to be protected from baying mobs by the police. When it comes to online intimidation female MPs and MPs from minority backgrounds have borne the brunt — with Dianne Abbott receiving by far the most.

Such intimidation first and foremost affects the person receiving it. I know from talking to friends who are in politics that the level of intimidation changes their lives. I know MPs who struggle to sleep properly as a result. Others keep a constant eye out when in public in case someone decides to follow through on the threats and attack them. Some MPs are used to the unease this creates, but worry about the impact on their family living in fear of what might happen. This has only grown following the killing of David Amess so recently.

While the impact is firstly individual, the most profound impact is on our politics. Harassment poisons our political discourse, stops people being able to disagree well and it puts off the people we would most want to have in politics.

That’s why those of us who care about protecting democracy should do all we can to crack down on the intimidation of politicians. We can do that by not sharing the videos of pathetic selfie-stick wielding “activists” desperate for likes on their social media pages. We can do so by speaking out against intimidation whenever we see it, and especially when it’s targeting people we might disagree with. That’s why I spoke out against those who threw milkshakes at Nigel Farage. We can also do it more positively by thanking politicians for their work and doing our best to disagree well (yes, even on Twitter).

The Prime Minister also has a particular responsibility to avoid increasing the likelihood of intimidation and violence in our politics. I think it is too simple and ultimately wrong to draw direct causality between the words of the PM and the violence directed towards Starmer yesterday. Those responsible are those who took part. But it’s undoubtedly the case that throwing around accusations invented by far-right trolls that Starmer protected paedophiles is deeply irresponsible.

We know from the US how absurd conspiracy theories have moved from marginal to mainstream following their tactical embrace by Republicans trying to exploit their energy and inflict damage on their opponents even while knowing the theories are not true. And we have seen how that has resulted in violence and taken a mainstream party into the hands of would-be demagogues.

We mustn’t stoop to that level in the UK. I am optimistic that we won’t. The British public will react against it as they have in this case. I hope our PM takes the next opportunity to distance himself from such vile slurs. Even more importantly I hope he learns from this episode that weaponising conspiracy theories in not only dangerous but politically counterproductive. 

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