Labour could go into a general election without a clear position on whether it would support remaining in the European Union in the promised referendum.

A policy statement put forward by Jeremy Corbyn to the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) sets out a plan for a Labour government to reach a deal with Brussels in three months which would then be put to a referendum.

Labour’s stance in that referendum would be settled in a special conference after a general election.

But the move has angered Labour MPs and activists who are pushing for the party to throw its weight behind the remain cause now.

Scores of motions have been submitted to the party conference calling for Labour to back remain, and campaigners fear the NEC statement – which has yet to be signed off – will shut down debate on the issue.

At the start of the conference in Brighton, shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis said: “This move is just plain wrong. How can this be defended?

“We, the left, took over the leadership of this party promising internal democracy, promising a new kind of politics.

“And yet here we are, with a leadership apparently determined to shut down democratic debate on the crucial issue of the day, probably relying on union bloc votes to outvote the members.

“It’s not what we signed up for. We now need to rally on the conference floor – if it passes, delegates should mobilise to vote against the NEC statement so the Brexit motions can be heard and democratically debated.”

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle said: “We are being hammered on the doorstep because our Brexit position is a fudge.

“Yes, it’s great that we are putting forward a public vote and a remain option.

“But in every seat in the country, Leave and Remain, we are losing votes because our voters are turning to Remain parties.

“This conference is our one chance before an election to get out of the fudge – we cannot allow that to be taken away from us in some procedural stitch-up.”

Former leadership contender Owen Smith said: “Is the NEC seriously saying that Labour should go into a general election saying we’ll have another referendum on Brexit, but we’re not telling the electorate which way we’ll vote in that referendum?

“That would be the antithesis of ‘honest politics’.”

Michael Chessum, national organiser for the Another Europe is Possible campaign group, said:  “Introducing an NEC statement in this manner would be a bare-faced attempt to shut down a democratic debate on Brexit at conference.

“The idea that Labour would not take a position now, and put it off to a special conference just after an election, is absurd.

“We have a conference, right here and right now, which has had a huge wave of grassroots motions submitted to it on Brexit.”

The draft NEC statement said: “After three years of shambolic Tory negotiations and parliamentary deadlock, a Labour government will get Brexit sorted one way or another within six months of coming to power, allowing us to concentrate on all the issues that matter to people most.”

It came as shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, addressing a People’s Vote rally in Brighton, said a second referendum is the “only way out” of the current impasse and that he would support remaining in the EU.

“I have to admit that a year or so ago I wasn’t sure that a referendum was the right way out – but now I’m utterly convinced it’s the only way out.

“We’ve been trying in Parliament to sort this out, we’ve had three years where we’ve tried to sort this out and we can’t, and therefore it’s got to go back to the public. We’ve got to hear what people have to say about this.

Labour Party Conference
Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer at the ‘Trust the People’ march (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“When that time comes, I will campaign for Remain alongside millions of other people in this country, because it’s not just a technical question of whether you want to be in or out of the EU, it’s about what sort of country you want to be.”

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry told the crowd Labour should lead the campaign to remain in the EU if there is a second referendum.

“We’re not going to let it happen that we crash out of Europe without a deal,” she added.

“We must make sure that there is a second referendum and Remain is on the ballot paper and Labour campaigns for Remain – and not just that, Labour should lead the campaign.”

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “It is totally unfair of Labour not to be clear about their plan in government.

“Through choosing whether to support leave or remain after the election, millions of remain Labour supporters could help elect a leave government.”

Tory chairman James Cleverly said: “Corbyn’s Brexit policy can be summed up in three simple words: more pointless delay.

“Jeremy Corbyn can’t lead his own party, let alone the country, and he couldn’t negotiate his way out of a wet paper bag.”

On the eve of the conference, Mr Corbyn defended his position on Brexit.

“I am not sitting on the fence,” he told ITV Yorkshire.

“I think leadership comes from listening. I think leadership comes from asking people to look at the realities of the situation.

“It is not a muddled position. It is a position that takes the issue seriously.”