“I’ve got a bloody long list here, lads,” said Kim Leadbeater as she bounded away from a voter in the early days of the Batley and Spen byelection campaign.
On this occasion, parking was the issue that Leadbeater had added to her little notebook of voters’ complaints. As a local resident, she quickly grasped the issues often overlooked in the national narrative.
Leadbeater could not have foreseen, however, that the contest would soon turn from parking and potholes to Palestine, or that uniformed police would be required for protection in her home town.
Her election as MP for Batley and Spen on Friday morning followed one of the most divisive byelection campaigns for decades. There were homophobic slurs, dirty tricks, fake leaflets, violence. And in the middle of this ugly cacophony stood a newcomer to politics whose sister was murdered in this constituency just five years ago.
Leadbeater, 45, was incredibly close to her older sister, Jo Cox, whose killing convulsed Britain a week before the EU referendum in 2016. They grew up in Heckmondwike, two miles from Batley, and shared friends, interests and values that were shaped by their parents.
While Cox went to Cambridge University, Leadbeater stayed local and rose through the ranks as a super saleswoman for one of West Yorkshire’s many bed companies. She went on to work as a wellbeing coach and personal trainer, and as an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation, set up in her sister’s memory.
Her decision to put herself forward for MP took many by surprise. “She has never seemed particularly political, neither Labour nor Tory,” said one local Labour figure.
Labour flexed its usual rules of having to be a member for at least 12 months to allow her to stand. “The most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make,” she said after deliberating with her mum, dad and partner. Security, understandably, was a prime concern.
When Labour activists were kicked, punched and pelted with eggs days before polling day, Leadbeater visited her parents – Jean, a former school secretary, and Gordon, who worked in a toothpaste and hairspray factory – to reassure them.
“She was very steely about it,” said one close family friend. “She was understandably quite shaken but she’s been hardened by what’s happened to her and her family and she genuinely just felt for the community.”
In fact, the mood in Leadbeater’s camp improved following the scuffles. Her team say they were inundated with messages of support from Muslim residents, particularly women, saying “that doesn’t reflect us”.
Leadbeater is a high-energy extrovert, personable and warm, and “as a close to a ‘normal person’ as has been elected,” said one Labour activist. She greets strangers with a cheery “hello, love!” and practically bounced between doors on the campaign trail, often bumping into old school friends with whom she would chat for an age.
“Kim being the way she is, she would stand and talk to them for half an hour – about yoga or anything – while the rest of us were trying to get her to come and knock on doors,” said a close friend. “She’s totally, totally, totally a people person.”
Most new MPs have at least one or two unsuccessful election campaigns behind them. Some have stood as a councillor. Most have been actively involved in their constituency parties. Leadbeater has none of this experience, but believes that could help her when she travels 200 miles south to Westminster.
“There’s two reasons I’ve said before I wouldn’t get involved in politics,” she told the Guardian on a break between door-knocking. “One was because I swear too much. The second was because I’m not very good at toeing the party line. I will be my own woman.”
Leadbeater has been outspoken about how all political parties have lost touch with voters. Will she be muzzled now she has joined the fray? “Will I ’eck,” she said.