Sir Keir Starmer has said the next general election cannot be “reduced to a simple constitutional question”, when asked about Nicola Sturgeon’s plans for a “de facto referendum” on Scottish independence.
The Labour leader said he rejected attempts to “re-frame” the election as anything other than a contest between Labour and the Conservatives.
He spoke to journalists in Edinburgh after joining Gordon Brown and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to discuss the former prime minister’s plans for constitutional change, including replacing the House of Lords.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling last month, the SNP leader has said she will treat the next general election as a de facto referendum on Scottish independence.
Sir Keir was asked what he would do if he were prime minister and pro-independence parties achieved more than 50% of the vote in Scotland.
He said the contest between a Labour or Tory government was “the central divide, the central most important question that will be before the country”.
Saying voters had told him that the cost-of-living crisis was top of their concerns, Sir Keir continued: “The idea that this can all be simply reduced to a simple constitutional question, I just think is so far removed from what so many people from so many families across Scotland are worrying about.”
The Labour leader was asked again how he would respond as prime minister if Nicola Sturgeon sought to open independence negotiations.
He said: “I know that there’s an attempt to try and change it into an election on something else completely – it isn’t an election on something else completely.
“It’s a general election for the whole United Kingdom.”
He said voters would see the general election as about matters such as the economy, defence, the NHS and energy prices.
Sir Keir said: “The idea that all of that is as naught and nobody is interested in those questions and we’re arguing about something Nicola Sturgeon defines in that way is just to stand in the way of common sense of what the general election is all about.”
Mr Sarwar, who was with him at the time, said the first poll since the Supreme Court’s decision in November showed Labour going up and the SNP coming down.
In a speech to party members, the former prime minister said his commission wanted to see the “biggest shift of power out of Westminster and Whitehall that we have seen”.
His report, published on Monday, sets out plans for constitutional change in a number of areas.
Holyrood would gain powers to join some international schemes such as Erasmus while control over job centres would be made more local.
It also advocates for devolution within Scotland such as elected mayors.
Failing to reform the centre of the UK was the “missing element” of Labour’s devolution plans, he said, something his new report seeks to address.
Other changes include a new council of nations and regions which bring together different parts of the UK.
He said: “In 2014 I heard so many people saying I’m voting for independence because I don’t think there’s any other alternative to change Scotland or to change Britain.
“Now we have an alternative, now we have a set of proposals that are groundbreaking that can actually show we can make a difference.”
“They will claim a mandate for their constitutional proposals regardless of whether or not voters in Scotland endorse them, and yet they will simultaneously stand shoulder to shoulder with the Tories in blocking the cast-iron democratic mandate which exists for an independence referendum.
“That stance is simply unsustainable. People in Scotland want an escape from a chaotic Westminster and they will not get that from Starmer’s pro-Brexit Labour party – only independence will deliver the change needed.”