Yesterday's speech from Ed Miliband simply confirms what many believed would come about.

The two main political parties at Westminster agree about being tough on welfare. There is no substance behind this, merely a move to try to regain some ground on the Tories' lead on Welfare reduction. Whatever happened to conviction politics, rather than soundbites, spin and rhetoric?

Despite high unemployment and a faltering economy, those who have the misfortune to be out of work are going to face an increasingly belligerent regime of harassment and sanction.

Labour and the Tories are vying for the affection of the many people who have come to believe that shirkers are bringing the country close to bankruptcy, that idleness or a something-for-nothing attitude are the root causes of our many problems and that benefit fraud is rife.

Listening to all of this I'm reminded of the widespread affection that a previous generation had for National Service or the short-sharp-shock approach to youthful misdemeanours – these are instinctive and rather vengeful ways of dealing with ill-defined problems.

Whilst the purpose of such policies is to win over or assuage swing voters in the coming General Election, the consequences are more profound. Lives are ruined; good, honest people are humiliated, and self-respect is undermined. Democracy itself is the poorer because a whole swathe of our population will be left without representation, forever alienated from a politics which exploits their circumstances and caricatures their problems. It should be no surprise that very few of our poorest citizens bother to vote.

The scale of the chasm which is opening up between the haves and have-nots is quite breath-taking. In January this year more than 8000 people in Scotland were sanctioned off benefits – a huge increase on previous years.

The bedroom tax has cut the already minimum income of many others. The gradual introduction of Universal Credit and the unwinding of the 1% ceiling on inflationary uplift will drag thousands more to the verge of destitution.

We are creating an underclass which has no investment in our society and no reason to conform to its norms and values. Those who are responsible seem quite content to blame the victims and to collude in the illusion – or should that be delusion – that there is no other way; that their cause is just – or, to use one of their favourite words, "fair".

This stuff is hopeless. For a start it is economically illiterate. The cost to the welfare state can only rise as more demand for emergency services outstrips any benefit savings. Health, housing and social work services will face soaring demand. There's a wider cost, too, in the growing division between rich and poor with rising crime, drug and alcohol addiction and the many other ailments of a sick society. Rising inequality threatens us all.

But the sustained assault on self-esteem is the most pernicious of all the consequences. Following recommendations from Campbell Christie and the Chief Medical Officer, taking an asset-based approach has become the method of choice in working with people who need help and support.

Building on a foundation of existing skills and capacity makes it possible for people to gain a measure of control over their lives and to make progress. Needless to say, a tougher benefits regime with its accompanying rhetoric heads off in the opposite direction.

Public services to help unemployed people have always been a political football as successive governments vie with each other to deride their predecessors and promote some new brand or deal.

The latest version, ironically called the Work Programme, has been spectacularly unsuccessful, finding employment for only 3% of its customers. The Work Programme was always doomed for failure because it didn't invest in real jobs. By forcing people to work for free, the only thing it achieves is helping private companies to make millions on the back of the misery of worklessness.

But the recent promise of an even tougher life for Work Programme graduates who have yet to find work begins to sound sadistic. It might just make sense to lean on those who are in long-term unemployment if the jobs market was booming, especially if well paid work was plentiful in every community.

Even the most optimistic of economists don't expect that to happen anytime soon, so we are down to political posturing rather than practical impact as the shallow reason for this whole shoddy exercise.

Labour had three years to formulate their policies and instead they have opted to unite with the Conservatives in a conspiracy based on an illusion. Of course there are a few people who try to defraud the system – but they are a tiny minority. And doesn't this aggressive narrative rather obscure the reasons for the crash? What about being a bit tougher on greedy bankers, corrupt politicians, tax avoiding multinationals and the vultures who pose as loan companies?

We should expect our politicians to protect the most vulnerable, otherwise our democracy will drown in self-interest.

There's a price to be paid for this arrogant conspiracy to divide and rule. I spent last Saturday with the growing band of people who have set up food banks up and down the country.

The stories they told of the people they have helped in 21st century Scotland would make you weep, but the way these communities are coming together to do their best for their fellow citizens sets an inspirational example for us all.

Martin Sime is Chief Executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.