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Under the ancien regime at the Labour Party, one individual, by rota - an MP elected by the Constituency Section, a member elected to the NEC by the Women's Section, and a trade-union leader elected by the Trades Union Section - took the chair, Monday to Friday, at Blackpool or Brighton, writes Tam Dalyell.

Far and away the worst chairmen were male Labour MPs, who wanted to oblige all and sundry. Much better were the women MPs, who, in those days, on top of their undoubted abilities, commanded a certain gender sympathy. However, far and away the best chairmen were burly, tough, "no nonsense from you, comrade" trade-union leaders. In this league over the last 40 years, since I started going to conference as a very young delegate, were the late Sam Watson, of the Durham miners, Alex Kitson, of the Scottish Horse and Motormen, later of the Transport and General Workers' Union, and the National Union of Seamen's Sam McCluskie.

It fell to McCluskie to be the conference chairman at Brighton in 1983, at the nadir of the Labour Party's fortunes. Bullying, cajoling, charming the delegates by turn, with all the skills accumulated during interminable rough trade-union meetings, McCluskie played an important role in bringing the Labour Party back from the edge of the precipice of oblivion. He was an authentic working-class leader, whose style was breezy, blunt and unmalicious.

In 1986, McCluskie was blazingly angry - and when he was angry, his language was as picturesque as it is unprintable - with me when I voted against one of the Liverpool militants' being expelled from the Labour Party by the National Executive.

As soon as he had finished berating me, he chuckled- "And now we must talk about Celtic's performance on Saturday."

Samuel Joseph McCluskie, trade unionist: born Leith 11 August 1932; member, Labour Party National Executive Committee 1974-95, Treasurer 1984- 92; Assistant General Secretary, National Union of Seamen 1976-86, General Secretary 1986-90; Chairman, Labour Party 1983; Executive Officer, Rail, Maritime and Transport Union 1990-91; married 1961 Alice Potter (one daughter, and one son deceased); died 15 September 1995.