Kim Leadbeater has an instant warmth that feels out of place in the often-intimidating halls of parliament. She greets me in her office with a big smile. “Do you mind?” she asks, apologetically, producing a sandwich, munching it politely between questions.
Leadbeater has been an MP for less than two years, having won the seat of Batley and Spen, in West Yorkshire, in a 2021 by-election by just over 300 votes. It was a fierce campaign, taken on by Leadbeater five years after the murder of her sister, Jo Cox, the constituency’s former MP, by a far-right extremist.
“Jo and I were extremely close when we were growing up,” Leadbeater, 46, says. She tells me about her and her sister’s shared values: “Nothing too complicated, just about how you treat other people, about how you sometimes must compromise and agree to disagree. You respect and you celebrate difference. You focus on the common ground rather than the things that divide.”
Leadbeater’s attitude stands in stark contrast to the culture wars raging through British politics. While the Parliamentary Labour Party is divided over transgender rights, she is hosting a round-table discussion with trans people in her constituency. “What I never like is when you’ve got a bunch of people in a room talking about an issue, and the people they’re talking about are not in the room,” she explains. “The point I come from is everybody’s rights are equal. We need to prepare to have those conversations and we need to be prepared to listen to people.”
Her journey into politics was unusual. She was a lecturer in physical health at Bradford College and a personal trainer, and says proudly that she “had no political experience whatsoever”. “But what I did have,” she explains, “was shedloads of life experience.” She hates the expression “real people” (“because I don’t want to be disparaging towards colleagues who have had a political career”), but maintains that “life experience for politicians is as important as, if not more important than, having a degree or qualifications in politics”.
Leadbeater’s election in 2021 brought with it renewed hope for the Labour Party after the disastrous losses of 2019. Keir Starmer, who had become party leader about a year earlier, declared that “Labour’s back” after Leadbeater fought off the Conservatives and a challenge from the left by George Galloway. “It’s quite good that I didn’t realise how pivotal that by-election was, because I’m not sure I would have put myself forward or got through it in one piece!” Leadbeater laughs now. “There wasn’t this sort of voice in my head saying, ‘This is going to save the Labour Party. It’s important that you do this.’ ”
The more we speak the more I see how Leadbeater could personify Labour’s vision. Labour has pledged “radical” devolution and focused frequently on the importance of place. Leadbeater likewise evokes her connection to the local community when explaining why she chose to run for parliament. “I knew that Batley and Spen needed a good MP who cared about the area and was deeply emotionally connected to that area, because it’s a constituency that’s been through a lot,” she says.
The decision was made harder by this being the seat where her sister was murdered. “When she was first killed, I have to be honest, I said absolutely not, this has just happened and I don’t know what day it is,” Leadbeater says. Tracy Brabin initially took over the seat for Labour in a by-election in which the other main parties did not field candidates, out of respect for Cox. Five years later Brabin’s election as Mayor of West Yorkshire led to another contest. By that point Leadbeater was ready to stand.
“What I saw when Jo was the MP was that there was a way of doing politics… what is at the heart of politics is people, and for me, everything I’ve done in my life had been about people and everything Jo had done in her life was built around helping and supporting people,” she says.
Leadbeater hopes to put some of her ethos into Labour policy. She is challenging the leadership to make health and well-being a cornerstone of its plans. If successful, this would mean that all government work would have to meet three essential tests: to deliver economic growth, support the net-zero transition and improve the health and well-being of the nation. Her idea is about “taking a holistic overview”, she explains, and “what we can do as a government to facilitate a positive agenda around mental health and well-being”.
But Leadbeater isn’t solely interested in government intervention. Her proposal, she says, is about “giving people more leisure time, more time with family and friends, but also having workplaces that facilitate positive health behaviours as well”. She is no doubt taking inspiration from her personal training career, advocating for the integration of well-being and health into policy as a “radically new approach to government”.
In practice, this would include policies such as teaching well-being and physical education to children, providing nutritious school meals and healthy eating classes and increasing the power of GPs to prescribe non-clinical interventions. Employers would have a role to play too, and Leadbeater’s proposal includes offering business incentives for staff well-being schemes. It would require cross-departmental work, but she says it could increase the country’s poor productivity and reduce the burden on the welfare system, police and NHS.
Last year Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, wrote in the New Statesmanthat the health system does not “focus enough on prevention” and that “the next Labour government will agree a ten-year plan of change and modernisation to shift healthcare out of the hospital and into the community”. Leadbeater’s proposal fits with this drive within the party to improve public health and prevention work, rather than simply pumping more cash into the NHS. “We can’t keep throwing money at an NHS which is already really struggling,” she explains. “What we need to look at is how we can empower people to look after their own health and well-being, and how we can support them to do that.”
I ask Leadbeater if she’s confident that Labour will win the next election. She smiles, telling me that although there is “no room” for complacency, but she is pleased with the progress Labour has made. Now the challenge lies in showing people that Labour has tangible plans that will be good for Britain. “People need to know that it’s going to be different to the last 13 years,” she says. “They know that they’re going to be able to get a doctor’s appointment, they know that their kids’ education is going to be in a better place. They know that business is going to be supported. We’re carving out that vision.”