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Steve Gee - The Contender

February 23, 2015 1:00 AM
By Sarah Richardson in Building

Steve Gee (Nick Cunard)

Source: Nick Cunard

Steve Gee is not a man to shy away from a challenge. Not content with being the boss of QS John Rowan, Steve is standing as Liberal Democrat candidate for his local constituency of Epsom & Ewell. Building is joining him on the campaign trail.

The managing director of 100-strong QS John Rowan & Partners has steered the company through two recessions - including a 1990s crash which left the practice with just five staff, who alongside their surveying work had to clean the office toilets because they couldn't afford extra help. In 2011, after discussions with staff who hail from New Zealand, he offered his practice's services to help rebuild Christchurch following an earthquake that killed 185 people. At the time, most other construction firms backed away from the troubled £14bn programme amid wrangling over insurance claims and political inertia.

Gee's next test, however, is arguably an even taller order - and certainly comes from a more unexpected quarter. The 54-year-old surveyor, a construction industry lifer, has thrown his hat into the ring as an MP candidate in Epsom & Ewell. Standing as the Liberal Democrat hopeful, he will fight the seat against, among others, justice secretary Chris Grayling - who has a 29% majority. Gee also, somewhat ambitiously, plans to do this around his day job - taking just a relatively short "holiday" of a month in the run-up to the 7 May election itself.

For Gee, his campaign, first and foremost, is a chance to draw attention to policies he passionately believes in, on behalf of a party to which he has belonged for the past 15 years. But for others in the industry, his decision to stand presents the chance to see how a man who has spent all his working life in construction copes with the very different world of politics - a world which exerts so much influence over the industry and yet frequently seems incapable of understanding it. It also offers the opportunity to witness first-hand how issues affecting the sector are tackled away from the headlines - in the far more unpredictable world of local hustings, canvassing and sometimes belligerent voters.

So, for a slightly different perspective on the run-up to the election, Building is joining Gee on his campaign trail, following his progress as he bids to take construction to Westminster - quite literally.

A lifelong interest in politics

Gee's decision to stand as a parliamentary candidate might seem unorthodox for a man who, as the head of a business, has more than enough work to fill his days. This is especially so given he is not under any illusions about the likelihood of his success in a seat where Grayling's Conservatives hold such a large majority over the Lib Dems, who last time out took 27% of the vote to Grayling's 56%. "I wouldn't be upset if I caused an upset - I'd love to do it," Gee says with a smile. "But our first target is to continue to be second."

In reality, Gee's candidacy has been driven by a combination of a lifelong interest in politics and a conjunction of circumstances in his local party. He has been a Liberal Democrat member since 2000 and says he is a lifelong Social Democratic Party and Lib Dem voter - apart from in his first election in 1979, when he uncharacteristically voted for Margaret Thatcher ("to my shame", he winces). He was keen to become actively involved, but chose not to go down the route of council politics - "national politics always interested me more" - and soon after joining the party went through a selection process to be placed on its approved candidate list for parliamentary elections.

He stood in 2005 in Wimbledon, in a seat which he thought was below the radar, but was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight when the Lib Dems - which had previously put up a candidate to oppose the Conservatives but not really fought against Labour in the constituency - decided to contest it on the basis of disagreement with the Iraq war. "Labour pleaded with me not to fight them on it," he recalls.

Gee and his party stood their ground, but were rewarded with a surprise national media onslaught when prime minister Tony Blair and his deputy, Gordon Brown, launched their "Vote Lib Dem, get a Tory" campaign in the hitherto unremarkable constituency. "It was the one day off I'd taken in the campaign, and I had to rush back there," says Gee. Sky TV had requested an interview, and Gee dutifully turned up to Millbank, by himself and with no media training, expecting a five-minute slot. What greeted him, as he battled past the entourages of his fellow candidates, was very different. "I was rushed into make-up and put on the Adam Boulton show," he says. "I'd only been given radio training, I didn't even know where to look for the cameras. No one in the Lib Dems had thought the candidate for Wimbledon would end up on the TV."

After this baptism of fire - which ended in a third place finish but an increased share of the vote - Gee chose not to stand in 2010, due to pressures of work. However, he remained an approved candidate and continued to be "heavily involved" with his local party. So this time round, when the Lib Dems needed a candidate in his local constituency, he was the obvious choice. The fact that Epsom & Ewell is also holding local elections in May increased the pressure on the party to find a trusted candidate to battle Grayling despite his large majority, as parliamentary campaigns usually lend credence and resource to the local ones.

The campaign begins…

When Gee and I meet for coffee on what is effectively the first day of his public campaign, he hands me a draft leaflet, hastily pulled together ahead of a hustings he is due to take part in - and which Building will be watching - at Epsom College that evening. It picks out "further income tax cuts for ordinary workers" and "ringfenced money for schools" as key campaign issues, along with a pledge to increase health spending by £8bn a year. The leaflet also pledges that with Lib Dems in government "action will be taken to cut carbon dioxide emissions," cheekily drawing a direct comparison with David Cameron's reported instruction to aides 15 months ago to "cut the green crap" from policies.

The issue of sustainability is clearly one campaign area where Gee's professional knowledge can come into play, and the leaflet also nods to his construction interests by using a picture of two hardhatted (presumably "ordinary") workers to illustrate his tax cut pledge. Gee says that his campaign hasn't directly focused on construction issues in its early days, but "that doesn't mean it won't". He cites the Liberal Democrats' aim to increase housebuilding as the major area where there is likely to be cross-over with his industry interests, saying that it is his job to explain to people that while the Lib Dems are in favour of "local debate", these homes are "vital for the economy" and they "have to go somewhere".

Text - Agenda 15

This is likely to be a difficult task. "Normally the debate is about people not wanting housing in their local area, and some of the local residents fight like hell and want to know what you're going to do to stop it," says Gee. "So I have to tread a line. If everyone sits round and agrees these targets can be met without building in back gardens, then fine, but even though our policy is about local people, it is also Lib Dem policy to build 300,000 homes a year by 2020. Locally, I've been saying it's vital for the economy, and it's vital for people who work in [nearby] London."

Gee says that when he replies to constituents on issues like this, the fact he works in construction often comes up as he replies "with some knowledge". Another way in which his day job has prepared him for the pressures of his campaign is in public speaking: "Because of my position in the company, it's not unusual for me to be speaking in front of a crowd of people."

This public speaking is put to stern test later, when Gee takes part in his first hustings of the campaign, going head to head with Chris Grayling and the Labour, UKIP and Green candidates in front of an invited audience of sixth formers from six local schools (see below).

But for Gee, the chance to hold Grayling to account is an aspect of the campaign he is particularly relishing. And he says events of this type are his favourite part of campaigning. "I like debates and thinking on my feet, even if it is the most stressful aspect."

Knocking on doors

This stands in contrast to canvassing. "It's not that it isn't good to meet the electors," he insists. "It's just a real slog, knocking on doors." He pauses. "And getting generally abused by some people." He recounts a particularly painful encounter in Wimbledon in which he was "chased down a garden path" by a woman who took exception to his Liberal Democrat badge, shouting at him that he was "pro abortion". "I tried to argue back that I believed it was a matter of conscience, but she wouldn't have it."

Another challenge is the level of email correspondence Gee is already getting, with constituents challenging candidates' views on a sometimes bewildering array of topics, and candidates having to express their opinion without compromising their party's position. "The other Sunday night I had to talk about euthanasia, abortion, and Palestine," says Gee. "I'm quite pro-Palestine, and I was answering all these questions and then I thought I'd better actually go and check I hadn't conflicted with the party." He adds, though, that even though replying to mails is "quite literally taking my every waking hour when I'm not working", at least it's better than the days when most contact with voters was over the phone. "In Wimbledon I had a guy phone up who asked at length about my stance on hunting. I did point out it probably wasn't a big issue in Wimbledon."

Finding the time to engage with the more demanding members of the electorate is inevitably going to become more of a pressure for Gee over the coming months. He has taken the decision not to relinquish his professional responsibilities while he carries out his campaign, which he says at the moment is being done in evenings and weekends. He is planning on taking leave for "most" of the four weeks before the election, leaving the day-to-day business in the hands of his deputy, but points out that that's equivalent to what some would take as holiday. And rather than being in the Bahamas, if he is needed, "I'll just be down the road in Epsom".

What if he wins?

Unlikely though a triumph may be, Gee says John Rowan does have a plan should he pull off a coup come May. "We do have a plan, though we're not assuming we'll have to action it," he says. "I would stay involved if I became an MP, but my day to day management would be handed over. I'd be more of a figurehead."
He smiles faintly at this thought. For now though, as Gee heads back to John Rowan's office to sign off a bid submission, there's a balancing act to pull off. "I was just thinking I hadn't prepared enough for the hustings this evening", he says as he shuffles his papers into his briefcase. "But there's still a couple of hours.

On the campaign trail: Gee's first hustings

As the night draws in and the five candidates for Epsom & Ewell arrive for the first test of their mettle, it turns out that gaining entry to Epsom College is a challenge that may fell at least one at the first hurdle. The building where the five will be put through their paces by local sixth formers and their guests is a Hogwarts-esque establishment with a baffling number of entrances and car parks. After effectively stalking a small group of students through the darkness, Building is rescued by a friendly religious studies teacher, who explains that the candidates are "enjoying" 15 minutes of drinks with their young questioners, and we are ushered into an imposing lecture hall to await their arrival.

Hall at Epsom College (Nick Cunard)

Source: Nick Cunard

The hall is filled with around 200 young people, drawn from local sixth forms, with a few parents and party representatives to boot. At 7.30pm sharp, the candidates march through from the back of the hall to take their seats for the panel debate. Proceedings are got under way by a particularly precocious pupil, who does his best to entertain his peers with some questionable student humour ("This is the Green candidate. So please turn off the lights when you leave"). Questions are to be fielded by a student chair, with an ominously lurid looking timer set to limit the time any one candidate has to respond (according to the RS teacher, it looked slightly broken earlier, but she "has faith" it won't let us down).

Hustings Candidates (Source: Nick Cunard)

Source: Nick Cunard

Once the candidates have been introduced, the questions kick in. The first, over whether the UK needs a longer term policy environment, tees Steve Gee up nicely to talk about his professional experiences, and he makes the point that infrastructure spending "needs cross-party support" and a long-term plan. The Greens' Susan McGrath points out that climate change is also a prime example of a problem where "a five-year term doesn't allow us to address issues". UKIP candidate Robert Leach, meanwhile, takes the opportunity to describe Crossrail as an "excellent project that will be continued under a UKIP government". Just in case you were wondering.

As the questioning progresses, it's clear that Gee - and indeed the other candidates - have Grayling in their sights. The justice secretary is by a fair measure the most polished of the five, delivering his answers with all the assuredness - and hand gestures - that you would expect from one used to the debating chambers of Westminster. But his rivals for the seat do not miss an opportunity to try to direct the students' sympathies away from him ("I'd ask Chris Grayling which human rights he wishes to remove from you all", is Gee's retort at one point, in reference to the Conservatives' pledge to allow parliament to veto rulings by the European Court of Human Rights).

For Grayling's part, despite his majority, he says that he "does not believe in safe seats", and engages willingly in the ensuing hour and a half-long debate - which covers issues from taxation, to the environment, to gay marriage. He also entertainingly interrupts at one point to refute an apparently bizarre accusation from UKIP's Leach that the UK has been spending money which could be used to address inequality on funding Chinese space programmes ("It's not even about space - it's that we don't actually give money to China").

Hustings (Source: Nick Cunard)

Source: Nick Cunard

As the discussion progresses, the audience become increasingly engaged with the candidates, and give the first applause of the night for Labour's Sheila Carlson's suggestion that the government's bedroom tax has fuelled a rise in poverty which has led to food banks being present in Epsom for the first time. As the candidates warm to their topics, the applause becomes more frequent. Gee gets his fair share - notably for his final answer, an emotive discussion of inequality which acknowledges that "parties of all colours" have not done enough to address the problem in the past.

Afterwards, despite the odd moment of awkwardness (notably when Grayling says "I'd like to remind Stephen we have been in coalition together for the past several years"), Gee can be pleased with his performance in front of an audience who - even though not all yet of voting age - knew their stuff and, with the confidence and clarity of youth, were not afraid to show it.

But the one issue Gee had prepped most for, being sure it would come up - tuition fees - was strangely absent from the debate.

Building will be following Gee's progress throughout the campaign on www.building.co.uk/2015election