Star Interview: The Sheffield Lord Mayor who wants to break with the past
Things are going to be different, says Councillor Magid Magid, now he is Sheffield's lord mayor. And if certain quarters of the city become ruffled by any departures from longstanding traditions, he won't be concerned '“ they will just have to adapt.
“I hope by the fact I am a black, Muslim immigrant – everything the Daily Mail probably hates – people will look and say ‘In Sheffield we’re proud of doing things differently, and celebrating our differences’.”
Tomorrow Magid becomes the 122nd lord mayor, a ceremonial role that dates back more than a century. He will be, according to convention, Sheffield’s first citizen, meeting high-profile visitors, attending all the most prestigious functions and acting as a figurehead for the city.
But his appointment sets a number of precedents. Aged 28, he is the youngest person ever to hold the job, and he is the first Green Party councillor to wear the chain of office too.
“It’s exciting,” a beaming Magid says, chatting expansively and dressed casually in a crisp T-shirt, jeans and a baseball cap turned backwards.
“It’s a bit bizarre to be honest. It definitely feels a bit surreal, but it’s a massive privilege and honour. A lot of my family and friends can’t believe it.”
In fact, the level of disbelief from others is sufficiently high that it ‘gets a bit awkward’. “People laugh, not to take the mickey, but just to say ‘Surely not?’”
To determine the next mayor, each party clocks up points, and finally the Greens have amassed enough to make it their turn.
“I thought about it for a moment and said ‘Let’s give it a crack’. Because the Labour Party has such a large majority they can just churn them out.”
Magid was elected as a councillor for Broomhill and Sharrow Vale two years ago, and has spent 12 months as deputy lord mayor – the second-in-command always graduates to the proper job.
The Greens were meant to take the reins in 2016, but the councillor chosen to be mayor, Brian Webster, didn’t get re-elected.
“Everybody felt bad for him. We asked the council for a year off.”
Each council runs the job its own way – in Hull, the longest-serving councillor gets to be lord mayor – but Magid is fond of Sheffield’s system.
“Anybody can become the lord mayor. Sheffield has got the Master Cutler, and the High Sheriff. But only certain people with a lot of money can become Master Cutler, you have to pay £100,000 of your own money.”
Coun Tony Damms, 40 at the time, was the youngest of Magid’s predecessors. “I was born the year he was lord mayor, which is pretty funny.”
Magid was born in Somalia, and fled the war-torn country by coming to Sheffield with his family aged five. They settled in Burngreave to ‘look for a better life’, he says.
“Sheffield welcomed us with open arms. It was the first City of Sanctuary, I think that was a lot to do with why we came here.”
He couldn’t speak English, but picked the language up quickly. “My mum was the one that struggled, she was the adult and had to do everything as a single parent.”
After leaving Fir Vale School he studied marine biology at Hull University, where he became involved in activism and was elected as the students’ union president, despite not being an ardent political type.
“I couldn’t tell you the difference between left or right, but I knew I cared about certain issues.”
He then ran a digital marketing business before returning to Sheffield. At this point he noticed ‘the rise of UKIP’.
“There’s that saying – if you don’t do politics, politics will do you. The Green Party’s core principles and values spoke to me.”
He stood as a candidate where he lives in Broomhill, winning with 1,882 votes.
“Whatever opportunities I get, I just grab. I really have no idea what I’m doing in life, in the sense that I haven’t got a plan. As long as I’m always bettering myself, and pushing myself, that’s the main thing.”
Magid now divides his time between council duties and freelance digital work.
“There’s only four Green councillors, there’s not many of us to spread the workload, but I love it because I’m constantly meeting new people doing amazing things.”
His least favourite task is attending full council meetings. “You’re a glorified community activist, that’s the way I see it – then there’s the pantomime of full council.”
As lord mayor, he will be chairing sessions, and intends to shake things up in the chamber by bringing in a performer – a musician, say, or a magician or poet – to do a turn in a 30-minute interval. “Just to show the creativity Sheffield has got and to celebrate local talent.”
Fizzing with enthusiasm, he also talks of appointing a Sheffield poet laureate, in the shape of rapper Otis Mensah.
“I feel the role of lord mayor is quite archaic. There are parts of me that do want to bring it into the 21st century; and not only that, if you look at the lord mayor’s calendar for the past four years, you tend to see patterns, because only a certain amount of people know what the role is, and how to access it. Minority ethnic groups are doing amazing things in this city.”
Magid is required to pick three charities to support. Mental health organisation Flourish, Sheffield Women’s Counselling & Therapy Services and the Unity Gym Project will benefit from his patronage this year, and he has set a target of raising £100,000, which would be a record for a Sheffield lord mayor. “I hope I don’t set myself up to fail.”
He possesses anti-establishment opinions, and has been wondering what he would do if, for example, the Queen visited Sheffield again as the monarch did in 2015.
“I believe we should have an elected head of state. I love the Queen, she’s hard-working and a lovely person – but the system is outdated. I wouldn’t even do a toast to the Queen. I can’t please everyone. I will stick to my own principles.”
Similarly he opposes the felling of street trees by the council and Amey, but it is unlikely he will use his new position to heal divisions. “When you’ve got the chain on, as the lord mayor, you are non-political. But when I haven’t got them on, I’m still going to be me, I’m not going to be silenced.”
In 2016, in his maiden speech as a councillor, he called on Sheffield to do more to counter racism. Magid says the city is ‘making progress, slowly’, and he has been following the national controversy over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party with interest.
“But at the same time the Tory party has a massive issue with homophobia, and that’s not being covered.”
Magid is single – if he had a girlfriend, she would be the lord mayor’s escort, an unfortunate turn of phrase – so will be accompanied to events by a different friend each time. And he won’t have a lord mayor’s chaplain, either. “I don’t want to be spiritually guided.”
He is keen to cut a reassuring figure, however.
“Of course there’s been a lot of hesitance, and people are a bit anxious. But there’s been so much support. It generally fills me with a lot of joy and hope, and I want to take that forward throughout the year.”
‘I don’t regret TV experience’
Magid Magid says he ‘doesn’t regret’ appearing in the Channel 4 show Hunted earlier this year, despite criticising producers for stage-managed aspects of the programme.
Contestants have to remain undetected for 25 days to win a £100,000 prize, but Magid was caught by a team of specialists who tracked him down in the Peak District.
“It wasn’t the adventure I was hoping for. The way they set it up is that it’s you versus the hunters, and the best one wins. But they’ve written your storyline for you. I understand why they did what they did, but I would never have done it if I’d known. But I don’t regret it.”
He claims producers asked him to be ‘a bit more emotional’, and that on-screen friction was exaggerated for the cameras.
“They want drama. They were annoyed that I didn’t feel paranoid. It got to a point where I threatened to walk out. I learned a lot.”