Magid Magid: “The reason I’ve had some popularity is largely down to failed democracy”
We’ve got a group of people in power who represent us and they don’t reflect the people they claim to represent. How can a cabinet of millionaires genuinely understand poverty? How can such a closed social group claim to understand such a diverse country?
The usually sprightly Magid Magid is looking tired today.
He arrives in exuberant enough fashion, half-jogging into the Lord Mayor’s Parlour with a beaming smile followed by handshakes and apologies for a slight delay that left Exposed idle for ten minutes while he made his way from other civic duties.
Waiting is no problem on our part, however, as there are many far less interesting places to be left twiddling thumbs before an interview. The grand room we’re in has over the years provided a workspace to 121 Lord Mayors prior to 28-year-old Magid entering the post in May and offers plenty of intriguing local eye-candy to ogle: from a commemorative sword awarded to the city following the decommission of HMS Sheffield to stunning pieces of centuries-old silverware and crockery locked inside ornate cabinets.
But if you take a closer look, you’ll find a few small hints hidden amongst the pomp and grandeur suggesting that the office’s current incumbent does things a little bit differently – or at least isn’t afraid to add a dashing of personality to proceedings. A few inches from a framed telegram sent by former Lord Mayor Winifred Golding to congratulate the Queen on her Silver Jubilee lies a pair of purple-rimmed aviators that wouldn’t look out of place at a Leadmill Freshers Party. A further glance to the right and you’ll see the now-famous sombrero hanging in the corner. Back in June it grabbed worldwide headlines after Magid paired it with a t-shirt reading ‘Donald Trump is a Wasteman’ and proclaimed that the US President’s distasteful policies – namely his Muslim travel ban, withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, moving a US Embassy to Jerusalem, enforcing the imprisonment of children at borders and defending white supremacists – had rendered him no longer welcome in Sheffield.
It’s one example of the refreshing, no-bullshit approach that has endeared vast swathes of the city’s populace – particularly the young and formerly disillusioned – to the new Lord Mayor, a Somali-born Muslim refugee who arrived in the Steel City seeking a better life with his family at the age of five. But this isn’t to say that such a level of popularity, especially that of an entirely unprecedented type when it comes to local politics, doesn’t come without creating some difficulties. I’d strongly wager that the slight bleariness in his eyes is largely due to a hectic Tramlines weekend spent doing speeches (and a bit of singing) on festival stages, attending a wide variety of engagements right through to the early hours of the morning and clocking up a selfie count which he estimates would be “well into the hundreds”. As if to confirm this hypothesis, there are still some small remnants of gold beard glitter visible as he settles down into an armchair opposite before waving away my explanation of what’s on the agenda topic-wise and opening up the interview in characteristically laid-back fashion.
“Ask me what you want, man. I’m happy to talk about anything.”
Right you are. I clocked you a couple of times at Tramlines Festival at the weekend, often being mobbed for pictures. How did you find the experience?
Yeah, Tramlines was amazing and I think it was great to see how brilliant Hillsborough Park looked because I know a few were cynical about the move. Some people just don’t like change – I know all about that – but it definitely worked and everyone came together to celebrate. I was also really pleased to see the ’10 Sheffield Commandments’ posters around the festival site.
You brought it up before I could. Those posters divided opinion a bit. Many lapped it up and were taking pictures by them all weekend, but you did get a fair bit of grief online too. What do you say to the people who were upset by the whole ‘Don’t kiss a Tory’ thing?
*Exhales loudly* You want to know the actual story behind the posters? Basically, a couple of weeks back I got an Instagram message from someone who worked at the company designing the Tramlines posters. He’d seen the ‘Trump is a Wasteman’ posters around London and was wondering if there were any other messages I’d like to put out there, so I said yes. I kind of forgot about it and he got back in touch weeks later saying I had half an hour to come up with something. I had to think fast and since it was Tramlines Festival’s ten-year anniversary I thought the 10 commandments thing worked well. In hindsight, there were a few other things I should have got in there – something about looking after our trees would have worked better perhaps – but it was all a bit rushed.
Were you surprised that it really wound some people up?
I was a little bit surprised some people didn’t get the tongue-in-cheek nature of the joke. Take the whole ‘Don’t kiss a Tory’ thing for example. I’ll be honest: I’m proud that there isn’t a single elected Tory councillor in Sheffield. But people have been trying to claim that I’m actually instructing them who to kiss. Like, really? Kiss who you want! It was a bit of fun at a festival and really not that deep.
It’s obviously not the first time you’ve flirted with some controversy. Have you developed a thicker skin over the last couple of months?
Sticking with the poster thing, a lot of the people who were giving me grief were people who didn’t like me anyway. I’d go on some profiles that were dishing out abuse and saw that many A: weren’t even Sheffield-based; and B: I’d scroll through and see #FreeTommy tweets on some. I’m never going to please everyone! The amount of positivity outweighs that sort of stuff anyway. I would say I have developed a thicker skin and I’ve got to the point where I’m not interested. Don’t get me wrong, it is scary to stick your neck out and say what you think. But what scares me a lot more is the idea of getting to the end of my time and realising I’d not been honest and held back on what I wanted to say. Did I ever think I’d get this far? Did I ever think I’d be doing interviews like this? One-hundred percent not! So I’m going to carry on being myself. Some people do want me to shut up and stick to the status quo, but sorry, that’s not what I’m about.
You mentioned jokingly about sheer amount of pictures taken. Does it ever get a bit much?
I think people are just excited and want to say hello. Nobody is ever rude or negative; people keep coming up with positive messages and it’s lovely. I’ll be honest, it is still is a bit weird in the sense that people are queuing to take a picture with me sometimes and I don’t think I ever will get used to that. It was strange enough the first time someone asked me for a selfie.
When was that?
It was outside the Town Hall, not long before I became Lord Mayor. My instant reaction was to just look at him and say “Why?” – not in a mean way, but I was just genuinely confused by the whole thing. I think even when it does get a bit much I’ve got to take it as a compliment because it shows I’m approachable, and that’s what this role should be about.
Do you think you could draw wider parallels with the rise of Corbynism? I say that in the sense that you’ve become a figure offering something different to the status quo. There was the comment made by David Cameron in the House of Commons – “Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem” – it’s like that traditional establishment throwback coming up against something completely new, and it divides people.
We’ve got a group of people in power who represent us and they don’t reflect the people they claim to represent. How can a cabinet of millionaires genuinely understand poverty? How can such a closed social group claim to understand such a diverse country? The reason I’ve had some popularity is largely down to failed democracy, regardless of whether we’re talking about local or national government here. We’ve got a group of people in power who represent us and they don’t reflect the people they claim to represent. How can a cabinet of millionaires genuinely understand poverty? How can such a closed social group claim to understand such a diverse country? If we had a broader representation of people in power, people wouldn’t be as interested in me – I wouldn’t bring that novelty factor.
What do you think are the greatest political issues facing the UK today?
Obviously, Brexit is the biggest current issue which needs tackling. I do also think we live in a polarised country, even here in Sheffield 51% voted to leave, and we need to look at ways of bringing people back together regardless of class, colour or background. Celebrating difference is always important, but we also need to look at promoting the things we have in common. That’s very important.
You’ve been in the post for just over two months and you’ve really launched yourself into the role. You seem to be everywhere. Is there any exhaustion creeping in yet?
Man, I am tired today because I got in at 6am from Tramlines this morning and I probably slept until 7.30am. I’ve been fine so far but I do need to be careful as I don’t want to burn myself out. There has to be a bit of self-care involved and learning not to say yes to absolutely everything. I’m a fairly energetic person though, so I should be able to manage.
Looking back, what are your recollections of growing up in Sheffield and how that might have shaped you?
I grew up in a very diverse community in Burngreave, and as a young kid you just play with other kids and don’t think much of anything else. I went to an equally diverse school in Fir Vale and spent most of my time around there or the city centre – I never ventured much further out. I remember for sixth form feeling the need to branch out a bit so I chose to study at Tapton, which was obviously different – they had this mad game called lacrosse played with sticks! But it was a good experience because I could meet and mix with more people from different backgrounds, which probably helped to shape me as a person.
When did your political conscience first start to develop?
When I went to university I was really interested in sports, so I founded an MMA Club and wanted to represent them, then eventually I got involved with the sports union. That led to me going for student union president and that was another big step – I didn’t even know what the heck a picket line was! I couldn’t even tell you the difference between left and right, but I knew there were issues I cared about to campaign on. I think the fact that I didn’t come from a politics background like most other candidates helped me win it. I was able to engage with people.
Would you say the ability to engage with people is your biggest asset?
I would definitely say it’s one of my main strengths. It’s what I enjoy doing. And it was only when I left university that I started to teach myself about politics: everything from reading books, watching YouTube, forcing myself to watch the Daily Politics – I did it and became a bit more savvy.
When you eventually became Lord Mayor, was there a moment where you sat down and planned out what you wanted to achieve? Or was the idea again to just go for it and take things as they came?
Mate, I’m not the type to sit down and plan out the next five years. I’m happy as long as I take opportunities and keep pushing myself to make a difference, to leave my comfort zone and to try and make a positive contribution to people around me.
I’ll take it that means you have no idea what you’ll be moving into after your one-year term finishes?
Absolutely no idea! I honestly couldn’t tell you. There’s no year-long PR strategy or ways of looking into what I might go into afterwards. I’ll just keep taking the opportunities I get and try to make the most of them.
What are your thoughts about Sheffield at the moment? There’s a lot of development going on in the city centre and surrounding areas. It does feel like we’re moving forward a bit.
There does seem to be a bit of a buzz here at the moment. I’m not sure I understand about trying to constantly compete with places like Leeds and Manchester on a commercial basis. You can talk about business rates all day, but I think we should be celebrating what makes this place unique: the people, the independent businesses and the fact it’s not dominated by chains. They’re the things that make a place special and makes people want to come and visit.
How would you like to be remembered by the Sheffield public when your time as Lord Mayor finishes?
Wow. Someone who came stood up for what they believed in and did things a bit differently I suppose. That’ll do.