David Behrens: A question of office politics for mayors with perks but no power

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YORKSHIRE’S debating chambers have echoed of late with arguments for and against a system of elected mayors, causing many outside the Town Hall bubble to question what the difference would be between one who had been voted into office, and the common-or-garden variety.

The answer ought to be easy: the role of elected mayor is a political position which bestows on the holder considerable power and financial control.

Surprisingly, the issue of what a regular mayor should and should not be is proving more difficult to navigate.

With few or no duties attached to the office, the mayoralty is little more than a perk of the job for long-serving council members. The incumbent waits out his or her turn by raising money for good causes and dispensing bonhomie at various community events, preferably those with catering.

The custom has become so ingrained that in Sheffield this week, the council has found itself in the extraordinary position of having to vote on defending the right of the mayor to do nothing.

It has happened because the present postholder has, as they say in political circles, gone rogue.

Magid Magid is cut from a different cloth to that of most of his colleagues in City Hall, by which I mean that he is under 30 and not a card-carrying Labour Party member.

His inauguration earlier this year, at which he was piped in to the strains of the Imperial March from Star Wars, gained him national attention, as did the official photograph of him squatting improbably, in Dr Marten boots, on an ornate marble bannister.

Later, he proclaimed Donald Trump to be banned from Sheffield, unveiled a list of ‘‘Ten Commandments’’, one of which was ‘‘Don’t kiss a Tory’’, and appointed a hip-hop artist to the nonexistent role of the city’s poet laureate.

More significantly, he decided 
at last month’s centenary commemoration of the Armistice to wear a white poppy.

None of the above appears on the traditional mayoral job specification, which consists mainly of the requirement to turn up when told to.

For that reason, Magid’s fellow councillors have spent the week debating whether to rein him in by making him the subject of a Code of Conduct that would compel him to “respect tradition” and “remain non-political”. Laughably, a procedural snafu meant they couldn’t even agree on that.

It raises the question: why bother having a mayor at all? If we don’t want them to do anything, we might as well take the silly hats and cloaks back to the fancy dress shop in time for the pantomime season.

You may wonder how Magid Magid got the job in the first place, especially since he has held his seat only since 2016. But he is one of six Green Party councillors in Sheffield, and under the perks system, it was the Greens’ turn to nominate someone. He appears to have seen it as a more significant honour than it actually was.

Sheffield is among 23 English cities to have a Lord Mayor – Leeds, Bradford, Hull and York are also among them – and nearly every smaller city and town has a mayor not entitled to the prefix.

They are all drawn from the ranks of their local council benches and thus versed in the appropriate etiquette. They are also, with some exceptions, rather distant figures. Unless you know him or her personally, I doubt if you can name your own civic head, without looking it up.

That is not the case in Sheffield where Magid Magid’s behaviour has put a spotlight on the city – sometimes helpfully, more often not. He has not exercised maturity in his choice of agenda. He should have realised that his choice of a white poppy at the war memorial would be seen as an insult by many who had gone there out of choice, not duty.

Nor is his sense of priority sound. Sheffield has a significant gang crime problem, and someone of his age could help to address it – but not by arbitrarily appointing a hip-hopping poet laureate. Jobs for the boys – even boys who speak in rhyming couplets – are supposed to be a no-no in public life.

So, rein him in by all means. But the more we examine the detail of what a Lord Mayor is or is not supposed to be, the harder it becomes to justify their existence.