08/05/2012 07:39 BST | Updated 08/05/2012 07:51 BST

Tristram Hunt On Lords Reform 'Vietnam' And The Age Of Austerity's Place In History

It's fair to say Tristram Hunt has had a slightly lower profile in the past six months than in the previous period of this Parliament. We got used to him popping up quite regularly on the news and on the floor of the Commons, but since the start of the year, he's vanished!

Hunt says the chamber has been more like "a sixth form debating society" recently, because there hasn't been any major legislation to discuss.

Instead the historian turned Labour MP for Stoke-On-Trent has had his head buried in committees, and his work on them informs an area likely to cause political rows at Westminster in the months to come.

The biggest piece of work has been the scrutiny of the draft House of Lords reform Bill - certain to be the most talked-about bit of this week's Queen's Speech.

That committee's work took months, and according to Hunt, "was like going to Vietnam". There were divisions among the various MPs and Lords scrutinising the Bill, and two "minority reports" from those who didn't agree with the final text.

"I was the only person not to issue a minority report," says Hunt ruefully. "I felt very left out of the factions."

Hunt seems quite happy with the official report published a fortnight ago - and is very much in favour of most of the government's plans for the Lords:

"The case for 80% elected, 20% appointed was strong, the case for a referendum was strong. I'm in favour of keeping the bishops, so there's a great deal in the main body of the report which I was happy with. But it's a thing that divides all parties. So how the political dynamic then plays out ... I don't think anyone has a full sense of it, and we'll see that over the next few months."

Hunt's an interesting person to talk to about the looming changes to the British constitution - few MPs are better read-up on the subject. But even he worries that arguments about the Lords are going to engulf Parliament in the coming months at the expense of politics which matter to people. "It's sort of worrying that they've junked their higher education bill because of all the time the Lords Reform Bill is going to take up," he tells us. "The argument about priorities does seem slightly raised by that."

But Hunt believes the government's vision for an elected Lords somehow bumping along against the Commons in the same way it does today doesn't make sense.

"I don't find it credible that there will not be any change in the interrelation between the Houses, and the ministers' arguments were always that the Commons has the Parliament Act, therefore everyone knows who's in charge. Things won't stay the same.

"As soon as there's a democratic mandate in the Lords, things will change. Of course you'll be able to impose the Parliament Act as the final resort, but what does that do to the legislative timetable, what does that do to the relations between the Houses?

"On Finance Bills it seems to me that the traditional justification that the Lords can't touch them because it's a matter of financial privilege for the Commons doesn't work. If you're democratically elected and representing taxpayers, how does that justification hold up? That's unclear."

Hunt would prefer it if the proportion of appointed peers was slightly greater than 20% - "Because then you'd keep your General Dannatts and Robert Winstons, rather than just your ex-MPs. But I don't think anyone's going to back me on that."

Does he think the Lords reforms will become a reality in this Parliament? "I think it will go through the Commons, and then it depends on whether David Cameron wants to use up his political capital to take on his peers, and his father-in-law and all the rest of them, and see if he can push it through. And that will be interesting to watch."

I ask Hunt to put his historian cap on for a second, and give an assessment of how this period will be viewed by historians looking back. "There will be a sense of people partying up to... well not quite pre-World War One, but a slight sense of people partying up to 2008, and then, voom.

"And that's in Spain, it's in Italy, it's in America. It's not in China or Brazil, but then the story of Britain is enveloped in Europe and America and basically the Atlantic west. It does seem to me not a military moment, but quite an obvious economic moment, that whereas the western European economies take this absolute pounding, the developing nations and the power of the east is accelerating.

"How we re-adjust to that is the issue, because you need a level of growth to fund our traditional post-war welfare state. And if you haven't got those levels of growth then those welfare models have real challenges."

And Labour has to rise to those challenges? Does it really have an alternative at the moment? "We really now, over the next 18 months need to flesh out the offer. No-one was listening to us up until this point, but now the other lot haven't really succeeded, this is the interesting moment."

Does he think the coalition will last until 2015? "I do," he says, slightly sadly. "The Liberal Democrats have nowhere to go, so it's whether the Tories want to cut and run. But having introduced their five-year Parliaments I think they would be punished if they did decide to cut and run."

So Labour has a breathing space to set out its stall? "I wouldn't call it a breathing space, but I think on the balance of probabilities, one should assume this Parliament will go the course. But what they're actually going to do with that, it's difficult to see."