An ideological contest is taking place, as described by many commentators who are in Glasgow at the Lib Dem conference. It will determine if they get in to a coalition with Labour or the Conservatives post 2015 if there is no majority government.
The classical liberal approach began with the publication of the Orange Book essays in 2004 and was boosted by the coalition agreement with the Conservatives in 2010. In this corner are David Laws, Duncan Hames, and therir leader Nick Clegg.
At conference some of the motions have been interesting on this approach:
Alison Goldsworthy calls on the state to go on "a progressive diet" slashing welfare payments to the rich including Child Benefit and the Winter Fuel Allowance.
Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd urges his Party to back the Work Programme and a further emphasis on reducing benefit dependency and to present this in positive terms.
In the opposing camp are the Social Liberal Forum, who favour state control over market involvement. This is the faction for the egalitarian, social democrats led by Shirley Williams, Vince Cable, Tim Farron and others. They like to talk a lot about William Beveridge implying (surely falsely) that he would resist scaling back of the welfare state from the extraordinary size it has reached. Their council includes the Lib Dem MPs Julian Huppert, Adrian Sanders, John Pugh and Andrew George.
They argue for more spending stating that only a "significant departure" from the spending cuts being undertaken would allow growth to return. Another paper they produced declared that "competition as a driver for school improvement" was being pursued "through costly structural changes to schools in England." The paper said there was no evidence it would have "impact on overall pupil attainment...Yet competition can increase stakeholder anxiety, impact negatively on teacher morale and pit school against school."
As the ideologists continue the argument the disadvantage for the SLF crowd is that events are proving them wrong. The policies they opposed are ones that have produced achievements for the coalition government of which their party is a member of. The spirit of William Gladstone and Jo Grimond is being revived.
Watching Paddy Ashdown with Andrew Neil last Sunday was instructive. He was adamant that the Liberal Democrats are a ‘left-wing party’. There is no question he is a Labour leaning Liberal.