Ian Lavery has lived in Ashington in Northumberland for most of his life. After leaving East School, Lavery began a Youth Training Scheme, before working in the construction industry. Following a recruitment campaign by the National Coal Board, he commenced work at Lynemouth Colliery in January 1980. In July 1980, Lavery started a mining craft apprenticeship, transferring to Ellington Colliery in 1981 and attended New College Durham, receiving an HNC in Mining.
In 1986, Lavery was elected onto the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) committee at Ellington Colliery as Compensation Secretary. Later, he was voted on to the Northumberland Executive Committee, and then on to the North East Area Executive Committee. He has said that because of his union activity, he was barred by management from completing his HND qualification:
"I was the only one in the whole of the North East Area who had completed the HNC who wasn't given that opportunity. I went to see the manager, not that I would have gone by the way, and he said that they didn't think I would be interested. I asked him if he had thought to ask me, and he said no, not really, and he was smiling as he said it."
Lavery became more active in the Labour Party and trade union movement. He rose through the ranks to become the first cabinet chairman of Wansbeck District Council. Following this appointment, Lavery was appointed general secretary of the Northumberland area through the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). In 1992, Lavery stood for the National Executive Committee of the NUM. In the subsequent ballot, he was elected in the first round having gained more than 50% of the vote. When Arthur Scargill stepped down as NUM president in August 2002, Lavery was elected through the normal electoral procedures, although he stood unopposed. He was perceived by many in the NUM as "the natural successor to Arthur Scargill".
In February 2010 Lavery became the prospective parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party for Wansbeck. He was elected Member of Parliament (MP) on 6 May 2010 with a reduced majority of 7,031.
On 8 May 2015, Lavery was re-elected as the MP for Wansbeck with 19,276 votes. Despite his party suffering nationally, Lavery's majority increased to 10,881 (28.2%) in 2010 over Chris Galley of the Conservative Party. On 12 December 2019, Lavery held out against a swing to the Conservatives in the North-East and was re-elected as the MP for Wansbeck with 17,124 votes and a reduced majority of 814 (2.0%) over Jack Gebhard of the Conservative Party.
Lavery has been critical of New Labour figures, particularly those who have enjoyed lucrative work in the private sector, who voice resistance to any attempt by the Labour Party to shift away from New Labour policies. Lavery has spoken in the commons on matters such as local regeneration, employment, energy, climate change, poverty, internationalism and sport. Lavery also chairs the trade union group.
In 2011 during Prime Minister's Question Time Lavery asked Cameron whether he intended to sack health policy advisor Mark Britnell. Britnell, then head of health at KPMG and previously an advisor to Labour on private healthcare had predicted a ‘big opportunity’ for private companies, with the NHS being eventually relegated to the role of an insurance provider. Cameron affected surprise claiming to have only recently heard of Britnell.
He was one of 16 signatories of an open letter to Ed Miliband in January 2015, calling on the party to commit to oppose further austerity, take rail franchises back into public ownership and strengthen collective bargaining arrangements.
During Prime Minister's Questions on 19 March 2015 Lavery invited the Prime Minister to apologise to the North East after cutting thousands of public sector jobs and adding to the highest unemployment levels in the UK. The Prime Minister replied that in the Wansbeck constituency unemployment benefit count had fallen 28% and the youth claimant count had fallen by 32% during the last Parliament. In a blog to the trade unions, following the July budget, Lavery described the Coalition government as "sanctioning claimants for the most minor technicalities ... controlling the employment statistics."
He supported the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn in the 2016 leadership election.
From 2010–11 Lavery was part of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and since 2010 has been a member of the Regulatory Reform Committee. Lavery was also a member of Draft Deregulation Bill Committee during 2013, and a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee since 2010.
He was appointed as PPS to Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman, but resigned in 2012 after acting against the party whip in seeking to exempt prison staff and psychiatric workers from a general public sector increase in the pension age to 68, in line with the exemption for emergency workers.
In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn appointed him shadow minister for trade unions and civil society.
In June 2017, Lavery was appointed to the role of Labour Party chair. Corbyn said, "With Ian at the helm, we will strengthen our campaigning and party organisation, as we prepare to contest a new general election and form the next government".
Since first being elected in 2010 he has championed issues surrounding welfare benefits received by some of the most vulnerable people in society including disabled people.
In December 2012 he told the House of Commons that he had received a copy of a suicide note from a 54 year old constituent who had taken his life due to disability benefit cuts. Addressing the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, Lavery said; “I have in my hand a genuine suicide note from a constituent of mine who, sadly, took his own life after he was informed that he was no longer entitled to employment and support allowance and disability benefits. Across the UK, more than 1,000 people have died only months after being told to find work. This is 2012, we are supposed to be a civilised society. We should be looking after disabled citizens in the UK. Will the Prime Minister listen to the 62,000 people who have signed a petition on this and please finally order an assessment of all changes hitting disabled people in this country?". Lavery was praised across the House of Commons for bringing to light what he called the "sickening injustices" faced by millions of welfare claimants, including working families in his constituency and across the UK.
Lavery brought forward a Ten Minute Rule bill on the Government's introduction of the 'Bedroom tax'. The Bill passed its first reading with a vote of 226 to 1, with Conservative Party whips reportedly instructing their MPs not to vote. The bill failed to pass in its second reading, with a vote of 253 in favour, and 304 against.
In 2016 Lavery campaigned against the impact of period poverty on young girls and women across the country. He is a recognised supporter of the Red Box Project, attending events and supporting recommended motions in the House of Commons.
Lavery has urged people to donate to food banks especially during school holidays when children from poor families are not receiving free school meals.
In 2018, Lavery presented a private members petition calling for the Government to legalise the use of Medical Cannabis. He did this on the behalf of a constituent who was treating the pain and symptoms of severe cancer with Medical CBD oil. Speaking to the House of Commons as he presented the petition, Lavery said; "This petition urges the Government to legalise Cannabis oil for Medical use across the United Kingdom." After presenting the Medical Cannabis petition, Lavery said; "The time has come for the Government to act immediately and legalise Medical Cannabis products, for people like my constituent Paul (Keeney) and the nearly 300,000 people who have signed his petition on change.org". Several months after the petition was submitted, the Government announced that it would remove criminal prosecution for patients using cannabis oil for treatment and would legalise the use of Medical Cannabis oil and provide this via prescription on the NHS.