Former MEP and Sheffield Lord Mayor Magid Magid on racism, ‘peacocking’ and why he’s getting involved with the Festival of Brexit
In just a few short years he has been a reality TV show contestant, Sheffield’s youngest Lord Mayor and Yorkshire’s first Green Party MEP; now Magid Magid is making another unexpected move.
Discussing his new book – a part memoir/part political manifesto called The Art of Disruption – Magid reveals that he has been asked to be a creative adviser for the controversial Festival UK 2022.
Designed to celebrate the nation’s creativity and bring people back together after a divisive few years, the Government-backed event – which was originally Theresa May’s idea and has mockingly been dubbed the ‘Festival of Brexit’ by opponents – has been criticised for having a £120m budget at a time when many arts organisations are struggling to survive because of coronavirus.
Magid says while he sympathises with that viewpoint, the opportunity was one he felt he couldn’t turn down. “For me it is a case that the festival is happening and it is better to have an influence and a seat at the table than not having a say in it.”
The experience will start another chapter in what has already been an extraordinary journey for Magid, who arrived in the UK with his family at the age of five as a refugee from Somalia. There aren’t many politicians who would happily admit to being an attention seeker but Magid has made standing out from the crowd something of a trademark. Having missed his inauguration as Deputy Lord Mayor in 2017 as he was away filming the Channel 4 fugitive show Hunted, it was a very different story a year later.
An unforgettable picture marking his inauguration in May 2018 as Sheffield’s Lord Mayor showing him squatting on a marble plinth inside the Town Hall with his official chain, in a three-piece suit and Dr Martens boots went viral – catapulting him to global attention and setting the tone for a year in office that made waves and sharply split opinion.
The then-28-year-old councillor went on to ‘ban’ Donald Trump from Sheffield, wear a white poppy at the city’s official Armistice Service and create a ‘Sheffield’s Ten Commandments’ poster at the Tramlines music festival that included the instruction ‘Don’t Kiss A Tory’.
Magid’s new book outlines his political theory of ‘peacocking’.
“In a world where there is so much information overload and people have very short attention spans, I would try to grab their attention by being different but I would always have a political message,” Magid explains over the phone.
“I understood what an amazing opportunity it was to be Lord Mayor. I used to give myself a pep talk before public events and say nobody is going to care in a year’s time. For me, it was about trying to make the most of a golden opportunity every single day.
“After the first photo went viral, it spiralled from there. Had I not done those things and the peacocking, I would not have been able to get people talking about Sheffield. People said I was attention-seeking – well, do you want me to just do nothing, just go away and hide?”
But while much of the reception was positive – Magid says he sometimes felt like ‘a bizarre Father Christmas’ as people’s faces would light up when they saw him at an event - there were plenty of people deeply opposed to his approach. In the book, Magid recounts how he ended up creating a ‘hate box’ in the corner of his office which he filled with the dozens of abusive and racist letters he regularly received.
He says the racism he faced did have an impact despite his best attempts to brush it off. “We are all human at the end of the day and I’m fortunate that I’m thick-skinned and generally just laugh things off. But it did get a bit much when it was from Sheffielders as well. I would regularly feature on EDL pages and I didn’t care but when it was from Sheffield I would think, ‘I’m doing the best I can and I have got the best of intentions’. At times it did get to me.”
Magid also faced plenty of pushback from political opponents as Lord Mayor. Midway through his tenure the Labour group which controls Sheffield Council tried and failed to bring in a new code of conduct demanding mayors ‘respect tradition’ – but his book claims there was even more opposition behind the scenes. Magid says a member of the council’s communications department told him their team had been instructed not to get involved with anything he was doing, despite such press office support being offered as standard to previous Lord Mayors.
It also states that Magid was invited to attend the Sheffield football derby alongside council leader Julie Dore and was left “shocked when she told me the number one topic the Labour councillors spent most time talking about in their meetings was not how they were going to tackle homelessness and not what the council should do to support young people or mental health – it was me. I was both baffled and concerned as the Labour group were supposed to be running the city”.
He feels some Labour councillors did their best to handicap his time as Lord Mayor. “I gained a lot of soft power as Lord Mayor. When I was getting more attention, it became really party political. They would make it difficult for me to hold events but then end up taking credit for them. Some of the Labour councillors said they would never have voted for me as Lord Mayor if they had known what I was going to do.”
One of his most controversial acts as Lord Mayor was wearing a white poppy on Remembrance Sunday, while the book also reveals that the managing director of Boeing, which was preparing to open its first manufacturing site outside the US on the outskirts of Sheffield, contacted the council to express its disappointment at Magid’s Donald Trump ban.
There is a long pause after I ask him if regrets anything from his time as Lord Mayor. “Honestly, there is nothing I regret,” he says eventually. “I got a lot of hate mail over the white poppy but also people saying even though I disagree with you, I previously didn’t know what the white poppy was to begin with. A lot of people didn’t agree with me but said at least you stood by your principles.”
After his time as Lord Mayor, Magid went on to be elected as the Greens’ first-ever MEP for Yorkshire and Humber – with a particularly strong showing in Sheffield where the party finished well ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. “It felt like 100 per cent vindication of my year as Lord Mayor. For Sheffield to come out the way they did meant the world to me.”
Towards the end of the book, he summarises the approach that has brought him success. “I grew up with the impression you had to be educated at the most prestigious institutions, be a fantastic public speaker and possess huge wealth to get anywhere in politics, but the truth is that the secret is in the sincerity.”
Whatever you think of Magid Magid, it is fair to say that is an approach he lives by.
‘Brussels is a massive bubble’
Despite being ardently in support of the EU project, Magid says being on the campaign trail and then working in Brussels made him critical of some aspects of the institution.
“In Todmorden, I asked a room full of people for a show of hands of how many people could name their MEP and only one or two could do it. MEPs weren’t engaging with their constituents and if they had done, maybe Brexit wouldn’t have happened.
“Brussels is a massive bubble. I was living in Anderlecht, which is seen as the rough side of Brussels where MEPs won’t stay. People there didn’t have a clue what the European Parliament is and I just though if people in Brussels don’t have a clue, how are people in Barnsley going to be engaged?”