Not many people gave Aydin Dikerdem a chance of winning a councillor by-election, standing for the Labour Party at the age of 24 in a notoriously Tory borough. Running for the first time in his life in Wandsworth, South London, Dikerdem expected to compete admirably but lose.
The previous councillor, Labour’s Sally Ann-Ephson, had been the first ever Labour councillor elected in the Queenstown ward only three years ago, in Battersea, an area that is becoming known as “Dubai-on-Thames” for the rapid growth of high-rise luxury flats and propertied affluence starting to dominate the area.
Ann-Ephson had been able to rely on a special personal popularity locally, having lived in the area all her life, but she died suddenly last year. As Dikerdem was selected to stand in the by-election, he mobilised his circle of friends and young activists on the Left, and managed to get up to 30 people turning out on cold November nights, knocking on doors of the sprawling Donnington and Patmore council estates.
“I can’t tell you how much people enjoyed opening their door and seeing three beaming young faces, rather than seeing an old grizzled white guy who’d been doing this for 40 years and had given up,” said Dikerdem. In the single twenty-four hours of election day, over 130 people helped campaign in one way or another for Dikerdem, and he ended up securing a 10 per cent swing in Labour’s favour.
“We got double the turnout on some of the estates compared to the general election,” he says. “That is ridiculous, that shouldn’t be happening.” He becomes the youngest member of Wandsworth council, and comfortably one of the youngest politicians in London. “My mum was more shocked,” he says.
A crucial politicising moment for Dikerdem came at the age of 21, in one of his first disillusioning experiences with local government. He travelled back home from university to attend a Wandsworth council meeting for a scheduled debate and vote on the selling off of the playground land of his secondary Elliott School, that was being ear-marked for “regeneration”. With a big group of former pupils and friends taking time off work to watch in the hall, the council postponed the topic to be discussed in a more politically expedient environment, without the hostile crowd present. “I remember just thinking, how is this allowed? How are they getting away with this?” he says.
Elliott’s land that was sold off to eventually become luxury flats is a place Dikerdem says he can’t go bear to go back to, but the moment had huge power for the politics of Dikerdem and his friend group. “To be now in the town hall, fighting against some of these decisions, that’s where the excitement comes in,” he says.
The political environment Dikerdem enters could, however, be a great deal more auspicious for a young Labour councillor. Whitehall cuts to funding for local government have seen councils operate as the frontline executors of six years of austerity. Overall spending by local authorities have decreased by 37 per cent since 2010, with further scheduled downsizing to bring an average level of 67 per cent cuts to councils’ budgets by 2020. In many councils nationwide, libraries, community centres, Sure Start centres, domestic violence and homelessness services have simply ceased to exist.
Given the size of the cuts, whether Labour or the Conservatives control councils is often tantamount to who gets to rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking municipal ship. Dikerdem predictably feels like he is fighting an uphill struggle in a Tory-held borough that includes Putney, Earlsfield and his ward of Battersea.
“There are some times you feel like you’re just running against a brick wall,” he says. Along with many London politicians, Dikerdem sees the primacy of addressing the housing crisis as crucial to the future of his ward’s, and the city’s, health. And like 3.3 million other millennials in Britain, Dikerdem lives with his parents, moving back in with his mother after university.
As such, he does not see the need to appeal to middle-class voters as antithetical to the goal of solving the housing crisis. “There are so many right-wing arguments against the housing crisis, let alone left-wing ones,” he says. “If everyone’s spending their wages on rent, it means there’s no money going into the economy. It doesn’t make sense.”
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Within Dikerdem’s ward, around £15bn of private investment is committed to the Nine Elms area, which includes the Battersea Power Station, a former British icon of public ownership that a Malaysian consortium now plans to fill with luxury apartments, penthouses and shops. In a borough that has over 1,000 people on the waiting list for social housing, hopes that this injection of new flats into the area will make housing more accessible to struggling constituents are likely to be disappointed.
Most of the first phase of 865 flats in the development were sold to overseas buyers, while seven per cent of the units will be designated as social housing. Less than one in five of the new homes at the power station will be “affordable”, which is defined as costing 80 per cent of market rates. Given one unbuilt studio flat in the power station sold for close to £1m, even these “affordable” homes will be out of the reach of many Wandsworth residents.
Those sympathetic to the changes point to the 25,000 permanent jobs and 20,000 construction and engineering jobs that the Nine Elms development aims to bring into the area, for those who are not forced out already. However, there is a perceived knock-on effect to “up-market” development such as the Nine Elms project, with the land of other estates eyed up by developers.
The Winstanley estate in Battersea that currently houses over 700 people has reportedly been earmarked for demolition and ‘regeneration’, with the Doddington estate also thought to be targeted. “People aren’t stupid, they know what the deal is,” Dikerdem says. “They know that in 10 years’ time, the council could well be knocking on their door, saying “Oh, we’re going to regenerate round here, and knock it all down…”.
Dikerdem is about to start a PhD in international relations, but for now, with more council elections later this year, he wants to initiate a takeover of a borough that’s historically been one of the safest Conservative strongholds. “The Tories have been in power for 30 years or so. We’ve got to take this council.”