And reading Nick Clegg's interview in the Independent left me terminally uninspired.
Of course, Nick is right to say that the economic crisis means that whoever wins the next election will have to cut public spending sharply. In fact, I suspect they will have to cut it more sharply than most commentators have begun to grasp.
But I was deeply puzzled to read that:
Mr Clegg issued a wake-up call to a party which has traditionally had a long shopping list of policies but been less convincing about how it would pay for them. Such an approach was fine for "an era of plenty", he argued, but would no longer carry conviction in times of "austerity".Puzzled, because this is the complete reverse of the truth. At recent elections the Liberal Democrat manifesto has been scrupulously costed. Like Alex Wilcock I shall be charitable and assume that Nick is having words put into his mouth here.
But what depressed me was that from reading neither the interview nor the Fresh Start was it possible to gain an idea of who the Liberal Democrats think they will appeal to at the next election.
What about students? We won a several university seats at the last election and hope to win several more. But the pledge on abolishing tuition fees appears to be one of those headed for the party's back burner.
What about pensioners? At the last election much of our campaign seemed to be aimed at them, even though (as Simon Titley once pointed out in a Liberator article I cannot locate at present) the Lib Dems do worse among them than any other group. Now, free personal care and a higher basic state pension are headed for that crowded back burner too.
Maybe this is taking too narrow an approach. Forget sectional interests: think of wider philosophical themes.
Are the Liberal Democrats the party who support local community facilities and oppose centralisation and giantism? Not enough to spend money on saving rural post office any more.
Are we the party that cares above all for liberty? That is what I would tell people, but there is precious little about freedom on the Fresh Start website.
So I am left wondering what the intended audience is for our new approach.
Talk of "tough choices" could have an appeal in the austere new climate. Except that it is not at all clear that we are going to make any such choices.
The Independent says that Nick:
He announced two rules that will govern his party's policies: no spending commitments without cuts elsewhere to fund them, and, similarly, no promises of tax cuts without increases in other taxes.Yes that sounds tough. But think about it.
We are saying that we will not change the level of taxation in the economy. And we will not change the level of public spending. That sounds more like ducking hard choices to me than taking them.
And isn't it churlish not to add a word of congratulation to Messrs Brown and Darling if we believe they have got things so exactly right?
I expect a battle over tuition fees at Bournemouth and I hope that the leadership is defeated in it. But that will only be a token.
The deeper problem is the lack of ideology in the Liberal Democrats. I thought the same when Engage, the new Lib Dem policy network, was launched. I will never oppose debate and discussion in the party, but were are the deeper beliefs that should inform that policy?
Without them you end up with something like Fresh Start - a selection of moderate, sensible views with no particular pull on the attention or support of the wider public.